Of course, this isn’t the season to be planting winter crops (despite the recent weather!), but you can get ideas for next winter and plan them in to your hoophouse layout, and order seeds.
I’ll be giving these two presentations at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s April 11-12 at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, Fletcher, NC. There you can hear me speak as well as see the slides; you’ll get a handout and you can ask questions. The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer is on Saturday 10am-11am on the Organic Gardening stage and The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter is on Sunday at 11.30am -12.30pm on the GRIT stage. I’ll also have a book signing.
Meanwhile, this week in the garden, the snow has almost melted, and we had two garden shifts, on Saturday and Monday afternoons. We pruned grapes and gave compost to our younger blueberries. Mud season is everywhere. The snowmelt is being augmented by rain today. When will we ever be able to till the garden? We planted nothing in February except some shallots. “Normally” by now we would have sowed two beds of carrots, nine of peas, one of turnips and some radishes and scallions, transplanted 4 beds of spinach, one of cabbage, and a third of a bed of lettuce. We’d have beds ready for sowing more carrots and 4 beds of beets and transplanting three beds of kale and one of collards. We’d be preparing the potato patch for planting. Instead we are looking at at least a couple more weeks before we can till and several weeks before we can disk.
Obviously we can’t do it all, even if the weather suddenly became glorious rather than rainy! We have to make some tough decisions about where to take our losses. The potatoes we can just plant later, although it will cause us problems later, when we want to end the potatoes and prepare to plant fall broccoli and cabbage in the same spot. it will likely mean lower yields, as we can’t at this point find a new home for the broccoli and cabbage without infringing on our crop rotation.
The peas still have a chance. We plant peas in the middles of beds of overwintered spinach. So we don’t need to till, just weed, then sow. We reckon we can plant peas until 3/31 in central Virginia. Veggie Harvest agrees.
I’ve been researching last worthwhile planting dates for spring. There are plenty of tables of last planting dates for fall, but fewer for spring. Here’s what we came up with:
3/31 Peas (date from our records, confirmed by Veggie Harvest)
4/1 Kale and collards transplants (our records, confirmed by Veggie Harvest)
4/8 Spinach transplants (our records. Va Ext says 3/16, VH says late April, Barbara Pleasant says average last frost date. Ours is 4/20). So we’re in the middle, maybe risk later than we were going to. But it can turn hot fast here!
4/15 Beets (our records. VH says late April, so maybe we could try a little later)
We also have 3/15 as the last spring date to sow clovers and 3/31 as the last spring date to sow oats for cover crop.
We’re going to reconsider each week, looking at this list for reference. We’ve already also decided to cut out two beds of spring carrots, as we reckon we wouldn’t have time to deal with them all, even if we could get them planted. we have plenty of stored ones from the fall planting, still in good shape.
And, despite the challenges outdoors, we are potting up peppers for the hoophouse.
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:
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 Center. Their 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 Groupthe 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.
For 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.
Virginia Biological Farming Conference January 29-31 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. Conference registration covers your choice of the 25 workshops on Friday and Saturday; Friday dinner and Saturday lunch; access to the trade show, where you can handle the tools you’re considering buying, and ask questions of the vendors.
Speaking of tools, I hope to sell our (long-unused) Cole Planet Junior push seeder at the conference. They are $760 new. Ours is in working order with all the seed plates and an attached bag to keep them in. I’ll sell it for $350 cash or check. Should you ever need them, spare parts are readily available, for instance from Woodward Crossings. It’s not a museum piece or lawn ornament, it’s a working piece of equipment.
At the VBF Conference, there are 3 pre-conference workshops (4 to 7 hours each) on Thursday, for $60-$75: Essential Tools & Techniques for the Small Scale Organic Vegetable Growers by Jean-Martin Fortier of The Market Gardener fame, Urban Farming Intensive with Cashawn Myer & Tenisio Seanima, and Edible Landscaping with Michael Judd and Ira Wallace (of Southern Exposure fame).
I’m giving two workshops. Friday at 3pm: Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests – How to plan sowing dates for continuous supplies of popular summer crops, such as beans, squash, cucumbers, edamame and sweet corn, as well as year round lettuce. Using these planning strategies can help avoid gluts and shortages and on Saturday at 10.30 am, Producing Asian Greens – Detailed information for market and home growers. Many varieties of tasty, nutritious greens grow quickly and bring fast returns. This session covers production of Asian greens outdoors and in the hoophouse. It includes tips on variety selection of over twenty types of Asian greens; timing of plantings; pest and disease management; fertility; weed management and harvesting. I’ll also be signing and selling books during Saturday lunchtime.
Bring a dish for the Friday potluck picnic at lunchtime, seeds for the seed swap, a notebook and two pens, a bag to collect handouts and so on, and if you play music, bring an instrument and some songs for the jam on Friday night.
Then the next weekend, I’m at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Farming for a Future Conference February 4-7, 2015, at State College, PA. There are extra pre-conference sessions on Tuesday 3rd and Wednesday 4th, then the main conference on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I am speaking on Growing Great Garlic (Saturday 3.10 pm) and also on Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables (Friday 8.30 am). I will also be doing book-signing and sales.
February 26-28, 2015 I will be speaking at the West Virginia Small Farms Conference in Charleston, WV. My workshops will be Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests on Saturday 2/28 at 9.30 am and two new ones on Friday 2/27, Hoophouse Summer Crops at 9.30 am and Hoophouse Winter Crops at 10.30 am. They are currently listed as High Tunnel workshops. Some say that researchers and Extension agents call them High Tunnels and growers call them Hoophouses, but whatever you call them, high tunnels and hoophouses are the same thing.
My next booking is at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina, April 11-12, 2015. I haven’t firmed up my workshops and book signings yet, but I might do the hoophouse workshops again (from WVSFC)
The next booking after that that I have is at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello September 11-12, 2015. Too soon to name the topic. MaybeCrop Rotations and Asian Greens. And I expect to be doing book signings at the Monticello Bookshop.
Now then, about pawpaws. Neal Peterson has worked for years developing superior flavored pawpaw varieties, and he wants to go global! That is, he wants to secure contracts to sell plants of his varieties worldwide. To do this, he has to have trademarked varieties. So he has set up a Peterson Pawpaws Kickstarter campaign to raise at least $20,000 by . If you’ve tasted pawpaws and if you support fruit diversity, consider if you can back up your support with some hard cash.
Sales of my book peaked during the holiday season (as also happened last December), so I conclude quite a few growers got a copy as a gift. I hope you are all happy with it! I also noticed that my reviews of Craig LeHoullier’s Epic Tomatoes and Jean-Martin Fortier’s Market Gardener have had a lot of visits, so many gardeners and growers will be curled up with a book, making plans for the next growing season.
I’ve also been catching up on reading, although if I had more time, I could give in to that urge even more! Last week I wrote a post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardeningblog, on Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House and I firmed up a booking to present 3 workshops at the West Virginia Small Farms Conference February 26-28. On the Friday I’ll be presenting two new workshops back-to-back: winter hoophouse growing and summer hoophouse growing. Of course, I have mentioned these topics in other workshops I’ve presented. The winter crops feature in Cold Hardy Winter Vegetables (click the link to watch the slideshow). I won’t be presenting that workshop at Charleston (the WVSFC site) despite what I said a couple of weeks ago!
The summer crops featured in a presentation I gave at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference “Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms.” This year it’s January 14-17, 2015, in Mobile, Alabama. I wish I was going, but I decided it was too far away this year. I intend to go in 2016, when I hope it will be nearer Virginia. My summer hoophouse crops workshop for SSAWG was way back in 2009, before I really got to grips with slideshows! And now I have a lot more photos than I did then! And at WVSFC my Saturday workshop will be the ever-popular Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests.
Meanwhile, this week in the garden, I have been taking my turn with the other crew members to harvest for our 100 community members. It takes about 3 hours each day to haul in enough fresh veggies for the masses. Outdoors we have kale, spinach, collards, leeks, cabbage and still some senposai, and the last dregs of celery and lettuce. The chard and the scallions have given up for now. Not dead, just resting. In the hoophouse we are harvesting salad mix, which includes some combination of baby lettuce mix, spinach, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bulls Blood beets, Tokyo bekana, Bright Lights chard and arugula). Each harvester gets to customize the mix as they like, so we don’t get the same thing every day.
We are also harvesting pak choy and Napa Chinese cabbage as well as baby turnips and turnip greens, radishes, tatsoi, Yukina savoy, and spinach for cooking. We are leaving the kale and the lettuce heads for later, when we have fewer other crops available (or if we are under snow). the hoophouse is a delightful place to work!
Pretty soon we will be dusting off our heat mat, plugging in the germination chambers, tipping the spiders out of the pots and flats and starting our first seedlings of 2015. We usually start with some early cabbage, lettuce, and mini-onions Red Marble in mid January, and follow up with early tomatoes (to plant in the hoophouse) the week after that. At that time we also start kale and spinach, although nowadays we start those in the ground in the hoophouse and move them out to the garden as bare-root transplants.
Last week I listed four events I’m booked for for next year. I’ll fill you in a bit and tell you about some more I hope to be at. My first is
Virginia Biological Farming Conference January 29-31 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. Early registration (hurry! ends 12/20) is $130 for members, $190 for non-members. So why not become a member if you aren’t already? You’ll get news all year. Conference registration covers your choice of the 25 workshops on Friday and Saturday; access to the trade show, where you can handle the tools you’re considering buying, and ask questions of the vendors; Friday dinner and Saturday lunch;
There are 3 pre-conference workshops (4 to 7 hours each) on Thursday, for $60-$75: Essential Tools & Techniques for the Small Scale Organic Vegetable Growers by Jean-Martin Fortier of The Market Gardener fame, Urban Farming Intensive with Cashawn Myer & Tenisio Seanima, and Edible Landscaping with Michael Judd and Ira Wallace (of Southern Exposure fame).
I’m giving two workshops: Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests – How to plan sowing dates for continuous supplies of popular summer crops, such as beans, squash, cucumbers, edamame and sweet corn, as well as year round lettuce. Using these planning strategies can help avoid gluts and shortages (3pm Friday); and Producing Asian Greens – Detailed information for market and home growers. Many varieties of tasty, nutritious greens grow quickly and bring fast returns. This session covers production of Asian greens outdoors and in the hoophouse. It includes tips on variety selection of over twenty types of Asian greens; timing of plantings; pest and disease management; fertility; weed management and harvesting (10.30 am Saturday). I’ll also be signing and selling books.
Bring a dish for the Friday potluck picnic at lunchtime, seeds for the seed swap, a notebook and two pens, a bag to collect handouts and so on, and if you play music, bring an instrument and some songs for the jam on Friday night.
Then the next weekend, I’m at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Farming for a Future Conference February 4-7, 2015, at State College, PA. There are extra pre-conference sessions on Tuesday 3rd and Wednesday 4th, then the main conference on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I am speaking on Growing Great Garlic (Saturday 3.10 pm) and also on Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables (Friday 8.30 am). I also hope to be doing book-signing and sales.
February 26-28, 2015 I will be speaking at the West Virginia Small Farms Conference in Charleston, WV. That workshop will either be Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables, or Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests.
And meanwhile, this week on the farm we finished our seed ordering and started some shopping for tools and supplies. In 2015 we will repeat our variety trials to try to find a heat-tolerant eggplant variety. We were happy to find another Batavian heat-tolerant lettuce to try: Carioca from Johnny’s. With the addition of a few exceptions, we rely on Batavian lettuce varieties once the weather gets hot, to grow without bolting or getting (very) bitter. the exceptions are Jerichogreen romaine, De Morges Braun and New Red Fire, a looseleaf red lettuce which nearby grower Gary Scott told me about.
We are also growing some Eden Gem melons alongside our Kansas and Sun Jewelmelons (and the individual-serving size Tasty Bites that I mentioned in my last post.
We have high hopes for Peacework sweet pepper from Fedco, a very early (65 day) OP medium-thick-walled pepper “with good flavor and full-bodied sweetness.” We are always on the look-out for fast-ripening bell peppers. Because of the seed-growing business at Twin Oaks, at the end of the season we have tons of ripe peppers, but if you are growing a seed crop, there is no incentive to try to push the planting date early. So our main pepper-focus in the vegetable garden is on earliness and flavor – never forget the importance of flavor!
We are also trying Donkey spinach this year. For years we have been very happy with the reliable performance and productivity of Tyee, but Fedco tell us the producer of Tyee is a Multinational engaged in genetic engineering. If Donkey can replace Tyee we’ll be very happy!
The weather is chilly and grey, so I’m happy not to have to spend long outdoors. The hoophouse is bursting with greens, and I’ll harvest in there after lunch, to avoid nitrate accumulation in the leaves, which is highest first thing in the morning..
We’ve been working on our seed orders. We start by weighing and making an inventory of the seeds we have left over. We check the dates on the packets too, and write off the ones too old to be vigorous next year. We throw our discarded seeds into an Old Seeds Bucket, and we have several ways of using old seeds. For instance, if we have a short-term space in the hoophouse in winter, we make a mix of brassica seeds and sow a baby salad mix. We have also made mixes of old seeds to use for cover crops outdoors. And we’ve retrieved seeds when we’ve had a germination issue with a sowing. We sow the old seeds alongside the poorly germinated ones, and order some new seed. When the new seed arrives, we might sow that, or if the old seed has come up OK, we’ll save the new seed for next time.
We use spreadsheets for our seed inventory and seed order, and we use the seed inventory to make the seed order, so we can see at a glance how much we need to order. It helps us buy enough seed, but not too much. buying too much either leads to wasting money (if we throw it away) or wasting time and money (if we sow old seed that doesn’t come up well, then have a crop failure). We do the seed ordering as a small group exercise, with the perk that each crew member who participates gets to choose an “impulse-grow”! It could be a couple of tomato plants of a new variety or 120 feet of a direct sown crop. I’m hoping to try individual serving sized melons.
I championed the idea of growing some Babybeats in the hoophouse. I had to trade away a sowing of radishes, but it will be worth it! Babybeat takes only 40 days to grow (a little bit longer than radishes), and produces a small round or top-shaped beet as well as nice small beet greens. This year radishes have gone out of favor, and we don’t have many beets in winter storage, so early spring beets will be appreciated.
We also make some group decisions on new crops. We decided to try Royal Burgundy beans in our hoophouse, where we do an early sowing, and want a variety that is easy to pick.We noted “Grows well even in cold conditions. Light brown seed ” in the description. White-seeded beans don’t germinate as well in cold conditions.
Next year we are trying a couple of rows of Boldor golden beets.Unusual color vegetables are not always liked by our cooks – we’ll see how it goes.
We are also trying some carrots other than orange: Yellowstoneand Atomic Red. Our dissatisfaction with the cabbage varieties we have tried for winter storage is leading us to try Storage No. 4again. Because our long-time favorite Ventura celery isn’t available, we are planning to try Redventure celery next year.
And we are trying Red Malabar Spinach next year, on a tall trellis next to the asparagus beans. We freed up the space by deciding not to grow parsnips, which we have lost to weeds at least two years running, now.
We were dismayed to learn from our Fedco catalog that two of our three favorite sweet corn varieties, Kandy Korn and Silver Queen are from Bayer or Syngenta, manufacturers of neonicotinoids – these pesticides have been connected with poor health of honeybees, perhaps with Colony Collapse Disorder. Fedco does a great job providing information about the farmers and companies providing the seed they sell. It leads us to many interesting discussions, weighing up the relative importance of organically grown seed, price, the presumed agricultural and ecological values of the supplier, the workplace structure of the seed company, and of course the suitability of the variety for our climate and our needs. So we will be growing Incredible sweet corn (85 days to maturity) alongside Kandy Korn (89 days), and Tuxana (90 days) for comparison next year. While scrutinizing the sweet corn varieties offered, we became enchanted with the notion of Early Sunglow, only 64 days to maturity. We are very happy with Bodacious 77 day corn, but an even earlier one. . . !!!Sweet corn with undersown soybean cover crop. Photo Kathryn Simmons