Archive for the ‘Crops’ Category

cotton in field

Brown cotton ready to harvest after the frost,

Fall is the best time to plan your garden for the coming year. If you manage cover crops with hand tools, like I do, when you plant them you need to carefully consider what goes in next. With this type of management, tilling them in anytime you choose is not an option. Some cover crops will be in the ground longer than others. That’s why, if you are going to grow cotton and flax in your garden, you need to plan for that now. Having a harvest of cotton and flax will open up a whole new world for you of growing your own textiles.

I wrote about cotton when I told you about my homegrown handspun cotton vest. Cotton needs long hot days to mature. Plant it after the last expected spring frost when you put in tomatoes. It will be in the ground until the first fall frost, and maybe a bit beyond, so plan for that, also. The varieties I grow are listed as 120-130 days to maturity, but it seems to take longer than that for the bolls to open.

red foliated cotton

Red Foliated cotton. Fiber is white.

I can transplant cotton into a mulch of rye and Austrian winter peas that has been cut when the rye is shedding pollen, which here in zone 7 is the first week in May. Cotton transplants would go in two weeks later, after the rye roots have had a chance to decay somewhat. If I wanted to plant closer to the last frost date, which is about April 25 here, the preceding cover crop would be Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, or hairy vetch. These legumes can easily be pulled out at that time and added to the compost pile. The soil will be ready for the transplants without waiting the two weeks. The pea, clover, and vetch plants could be cut and left in place as mulch; however, it would be a fast-disappearing mulch—much different than the rye mulch. The cotton plant in this photo has a mulch of grass clippings.

Flax, on the other hand, needs to be planted early in the season. Using Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich as my reference, the time to plant flax seed is mid-March to early April when the soil is about 43-46°F (6-8°C). Planting in soil that is too cold will set you back. It will mature in about 90-100 days, so be prepared to harvest sometime in June or July, depending on your planting date.

As with any early spring crop, to be ready for flax, you would need to have a cover crop there that has winterkilled, such as oats or radish (oilseed or fodder). It is getting late to plant those crops now and have the best benefit. Late August into early September is the optimal time for that. You could plant Austrian winter peas now. Although it won’t have put on too much growth by the time the flax needs to go in, it would have put on some, and the plants could be pulled out for the compost. The easiest cover when anticipating early spring crops is to mulch the bed with leaves. That provides a good habitat for the earthworms over the winter, leaving you with friable soil in the spring. Pull the leaves off the bed about two weeks before the flax will go in to allow the sun to warm up the soil.

You will want to plant a variety of flax suitable for fiber production, which is different than varieties best for culinary uses. Flax for fiber is planted at close spacing so the plants grow straight without branching. The plants are pulled (not cut) for harvest before the seeds are mature, so if you want to have a seed harvest for fiber flax, plan for that in another spot. For mature seed the plants would be spaced farther apart to allow branching and the harvest would be about two weeks later than when the fiber harvest occurs.

I usually write about food production, but obviously my garden interests have broadened to include fiber. I believe that, just as people are concerned about where their food comes from now, sometime in the not so distant future, they will also be concerned about where their textiles come from. There are some pretty bad things going on within the globalized networks that bring us cheap clothes—way too many cheap clothes. If we want to be free of that, we would need to look for textiles closer to home, grown in a way that everyone and everything benefits—from the soil and the lowest paid worker to the consumer.

Red Foliated cotton blossom

Red Foliated White cotton blossom.

I don’t expect that all of you are going to start clothing yourselves from your gardens, but it could be fun to learn about the production of textiles from seed to garment. Just growing a little of it and learning how to process it can start the conversation with others about our present textile industry. From an historical point of view, growing cotton and flax in school gardens would definitely add to the curriculum. Besides that, it looks so good in the garden. Even if you can’t grow cotton in your area, you can probably grow flax. If you don’t grow it, you could buy the fiber and learn to spin it. Of course, that leads to learning to knit or weave it. The opportunity to learn new skills is boundless.

Maybe you are not ready for this, but you find it interesting. If you don’t have sewing skills yet, you could start your fiber journey there. Learn to sew and you will increase the production of your household. Besides learning to use the fabrics you buy (start inquiring about where they come from), you can bring new life to textiles that are finishing their first life, such as clothes, sheets, and towels, by turning them into something else.

unretted flax

Unretted flax from the Heirloom Seed Project at Landis Valley Farm and Museum.

Cotton is something I’ve already been growing, but 2016 will be the first year for flax in the garden. I’m not waiting to grow my own to start learning about it, though. I’ve bought flax fiber to spin into linen thread using a spindle and a spinning wheel. The results will be used for weaving. While we were in Pennsylvania recently we visited the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum. They grow flax there and have a textile barn dedicated to showing you how it was processed in the past. Unretted flax straw is available through their Heirloom Seed Project. I bought some and am learning about that, too. Right now it is laid out in the grass being dew retted. I’ll be writing about that one day.

So many fun things to do! If you want to join me on this fiber journey, plan now to plant cotton and/or flax in your garden for next year.homeplace earth

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garden clipboard and veggies

I hope you have been making notes from your garden and your kitchen about what you have been growing and eating this summer. Being able to eat as much of a meal as you can from what you have produced is a feeling of accomplishment. Even if you don’t grow everything you eat, supplementing your meals with items from local growers can give you the same good feeling. It is very satisfying to sit down to a meal and know where everything came from and how it was grown.

If you are striving to produce meals with only (or mostly) homegrown ingredients, what would you have to provide, in addition to what you already grow, to make that happen? For example, you could make sure the ingredients for salsa or spaghetti sauce are in your garden plan. In my Homegrown Friday posts you can read how I only consumed what I’d grown for the Fridays in Lent. If you run out of ingredients in your favorite dishes long before next year’s crop comes in, plan now to plant more if space allows.

I know that garden space is at a premium for many and that careful choices need to be made. In that case, think of local growers as an extension of your garden. Whatever they can supply in abundance is something you can take off the list for your garden if you have limited room. You could devote your garden space to the things you love that there is never enough of at the local markets, whether it is sugar snap peas, potatoes, or a special winter squash. Maybe you want to eat from your garden all winter. Those crops need to be planned for, since they will be planted while the traditional summer crops are still in the ground. You will find a three-bed plan for winter eating in my post Winter Food Crop Rotation.

cover crops in late winter

Cover crops in late winter.

Now is the time to be planning for next year because as the summer crops fade away and space opens up, cover crops need to be planted. Which cover crop to plant in each bed is determined by what crop will follow next year. If you are managing cover crops with hand tools, as I advocate, the cover crops have to be finished before the next crop goes in. By finished I mean winterkilled, cut at the proper time to lie down as mulch or compost material, or harvested at the end of its life cycle. A handout that will help you with cover crop decisions is available as a free download on the resource page on my website. In Grow a Sustainable Diet there are sample garden maps showing how to include cover crops in your rotations, the reasoning behind the cover crop choices, and thoughts on what other choices could be made. Getting cover crops planted this fall is your first step to having a great garden in 2016, as long as they are planned with the next crop in mind.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Just so you know, the perfect garden plan doesn’t exist. You will always be changing it as new ideas come your way. Also, the weather has a way of encouraging gardeners like us to look at new varieties and new crops to add to our plans. Cowpeas came to be part of my garden after a couple years of serious drought. I put my mind to what grows well in dry times here in the mid-Atlantic region and came up with cowpeas, sometimes known as Southern peas. That first year with the cowpeas was another dry one and they did great. Don’t you know, the following year was the wettest year I have ever experienced. The cowpeas did great then, also, and have been part of my garden ever since. I save seed each year, ensuring I will have adequate seed for next year that is already acclimated to my garden, no matter what the weather brings.

If eating a substantial part of your diet from your garden and local sources is a goal for you, participating in the 10-Day Local Food Challenge can be a gauge to measure how far you have come. The formal challenge is taking place October 1-10, but you could determine any days to be your challenge. The formal challenge suggests you eat food grown within 100 miles for 10 days. Acknowledging that humans have been trading for eons, 10 exotics are allowed to augment your local/homegrown diet. The exotics are things not grown within the 100 mile limit. So, if you really can’t exist without coffee and chocolate you can include them in your exotics while you think about weaning yourself off of them a bit. Maybe you could experiment with herb teas from your garden rather than having another cup of coffee. I don’t have any suggestions for the chocolate other than to experience all the flavors you can from your garden, which will fill your belly and your soul, lessening the need for something like chocolate.homeplace earth

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salsa ingredients for one batchWhen I was first learning to can back in the 1970’s salsa was not on my radar at all. That might be because the canning books I followed didn’t have any recipes for it. Fast forward to the 21st century and there are lots of salsa recipes in the canning books. Salsa is a form of relish and is as easy to make as pickles. It does require some chopping, which I do with a knife; although some people prefer to use a food processor. I can salsa for use later and include vinegar, as you would for other relishes. Recipes for salsa to consume fresh might not include vinegar.

salsa ingredients-choppedThe recipe I use is for Zesty Salsa that I found in the Ball Blue Book from 1998. You can find the same recipe here. The main ingredients are tomatoes, peppers, and onions which I have in my garden. The vegetables you see in the first photo are the ones shown chopped in the second photo—all of which made the 6 pints of salsa in the last photo. Besides tomatoes, peppers, and onions, the recipe calls for cider vinegar, garlic, cilantro, salt, and hot pepper sauce (optional). I always have garlic available from my garden. Instead of cilantro, which I don’t grow, I used celery leaves and parsley from my garden. One of the reasons I like making salsa is that it is so colorful when you have everything chopped up together.

Although the recipe includes both green sweet peppers and hot peppers, I am not into hot so I used sweet peppers only and no hot sauce, although I have added some mildly hot peppers in the past. You have to be careful with canning recipes. You can sometimes make substitutions, but you need to do them wisely. The salsa was canned in a hot water bath which is used for high acid foods, so care must be taken to maintain the acidity. Tomatoes are high acid foods, but onions and peppers are not. Vinegar in the recipe contributes to the acidity. You can substitute different kinds of peppers, such as sweet for hot, but be careful to not have more than the total amount of peppers called for in the recipe. The same goes for onions. They could be any combination of red, yellow, or white, but the total should not exceed the amount in the recipe. The Complete Guide to Home Canning has great information about this and other substitutions. You can find it online at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website as a free download or order your own hardcopy at Purdue Extension’s Education Store.

jars of salsaBesides tacos, salsa can be used as an addition to many foods, including potatoes and eggs. Of course, it can be eaten as a dip just as it is. I grow cowpeas out to dried beans, store them in jars in the pantry, then cook them as needed. We have found that salsa goes great with those cooked cowpeas. If you are growing your own staple crops, salsa and other relishes can add interest and taste to your meals. Last winter friends gave us two jars of relish. One was corn relish, but I don’t remember the name of the other. It was all delicious on cowpeas. If you are putting up pints for your table, make sure to can some half-pints (jelly jar size) to give as gifts. The time, energy, and produce that went into making the salsa now will be appreciated by the recipients when gift-giving time rolls around. It will also make your life easier to have something on hand to share with your friends anytime the mood strikes. If you are wondering about those white lids on my canning jars—they are reusable lids. I like to use them on high acid foods and only on jars that I won’t be giving away. I’ll have to make another batch with regular lids for gift jars.

Salsa, canned in jars, is a convenience food for me. I have not tried fermenting it, but according to Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation, you could do that. Reduce or eliminate the vinegar and use plenty of salt. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic are available at the farmers markets now. If you haven’t grown your own, you could still do this. The 10 Day Local Food Challenge is coming up in October. If you plan on taking part, having a supply of salsa put up will enhance your meals. The 10 Day Local Food Challenge allows ten exotics in your diet, which are items not local. For me, that would be the salt and vinegar in the recipe. I haven’t made vinegar, but I suppose you could make your own from local apples. Then vinegar would be off the exotic list. Maybe you could find a vinegar maker and saltworks within your local food shed. It is something to think about.homeplace earth

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Cindy in her homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Cindy in her homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

My new vest is finished! In the photo I am wearing my new homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton vest. It has been a long time in coming. Growing the cotton and sewing the vest are skills and knowledge I already had. The spinning and weaving were things I needed to learn.

Homegrown cotton and takli spindle.

Homegrown cotton and takli spindle.

In February 2013 I wrote of my cotton spinning journey in my blog post Grow and Spin Cotton. I’ll repeat the photo here of my Nankeen Brown cotton, Erlene’s Green cotton, and takli spindle. All the fiber for the vest was spun on that spindle. Since cotton has such a short fiber length, it is helpful to use a support spindle, which is what a takli is. A small bowl supports the bottom of the spindle while it spins. Once the cotton was spun into singles I plied two singles into 2-ply yarn, which is what I used to weave with. The plying was done on a drop spindle that I made from a dowel and a small wooden wheel.

Small table loom with fabric for homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Small table loom with fabric for homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Joining Clothos Handspinners has been an important part of this fiber adventure. I learn so much from attending the meetings and interacting with the members. Every two years the group holds a swap meet which is an opportunity for members to sell extra equipment, fiber, and books and for others (like me) to acquire it. Some of that trading also goes on informally at the regular meetings. The swap meet was where I bought my loom. Then I had to learn to use it. This vest has not been an easy project. The loom is 12” wide, but my resulting fabric was only 9½” wide. I made a pattern from the quilted vest I wear, and from that, designed a pattern that used 9½” wide fabric. Since 9½” is not wide enough for a full front or back panel, there are side panels that make up the difference.

Erlene's green and Nankeen brown cotton spun and woven.

Erlene’s green and Nankeen brown cotton spun and woven.

I used brown for the warp and green for the weft. As you can see, the weft is dominant in the weaving. I grew both colors in the garden and, although they were a good distance apart, there was some crossing. I didn’t notice green in with the brown, but there would be some brown in with the green. Maybe brown is the dominant color when it comes to genetics. When I was spinning I didn’t separate the off-color fibers, so there was some brown spun with the green, just as it was harvested. The fiber from the green cotton plants also had bits of white. It made for a pleasant variation in color in the finished fabric. Although I did do some carding, mostly I spun the fiber right off the seed.

As noted in my 2013 blog post, my 2012 yield (fiber only, no seeds) was .75 lb (green) to 1 lb. (brown) fiber per 100 sq. ft. The weight of my vest is 11.5 oz. (.72 lb.) including lining and buttons. Frequently people assume I would have had to grow cotton on a larger scale to produce an item of clothing, but this can be done in a garden. I used cotton osnaburg fabric for the lining—a piece I had left from a previous project. Osnaburg has an earthy appearance and seemed right for the vest. Besides, I already had it.

Button made from a shell on the homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Button made from a shell on the homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Although I usually don’t button my vests closed, I wanted to have buttons and I wanted them to be special. My first thought was to make wooden buttons, but then I remembered the jar of shells our children picked up at the beach many years ago. I used small vice grips to nip the edges of a shell off—going round and round until it was the size I wanted for a button. Then I drilled two ⅟₁₆” holes in each button. I didn’t want to put buttonholes in my new fabric so I made loops by braiding my brown cotton yarn to close the vest, if I should want to. This was my first time making buttons from shells and I am pleased with the results. In the photo you can see a bit of the osnaburg lining.

Now that I know how to spin and weave, the possibilities for unique yarns and fabrics are endless. I will be learning about natural dyes and eventually learn to spin wool and to use a wheel. When I was at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC in April I bought a book charka from Eileen Hallman at New World Textiles, but I haven’t used it yet so as not to distract me from finishing the vest. Once I learn how to use it, the charka will speed up my cotton spinning. For this vest I wanted to use the least technology that I could, not only because it was the least expensive way to go (which was a consideration), but because I wanted to relate to how people down through the ages worked with fiber to clothe themselves. I’m sure in some places people still depend on these methods and, you can be sure, I kept them in my heart while I worked.

When I first grew cotton I had no idea what to do with it and put it away in a box for at least ten years. It has taken some effort to learn to spin and to get to the point of making a vest with my homegrown cotton. I might have finished the vest earlier if I wasn’t sidetracked writing two books during that time. You might not be into growing and spinning your own cotton, but there is probably some other adventure that has been rolling around in your head for awhile—maybe even ten years or more. I want to encourage you to go for it. If I can learn to do this, you can learn new tricks, too.

I’ll be wearing my new vest at upcoming events this year, which are listed here. First up is the Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro, Vermont on June 3-5. See you there!

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Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash–sometimes squash flowers are taped shut after fertilizing.

Saving your own seeds is a wonderful thing to do, but it is something you should plan for early in the growing season. If you know you will be saving seeds, make sure the varieties of each crop you will be saving from do not have a chance to cross pollinate with other varieties of the same crop. There are charts online and in seed saving books that give isolation distances for each crop—the distance varieties must be separated to avoid cross pollination. The distance might be shortened if there are barriers present, such as trees or shrubs and solid fences. Having a hedge as a boundary around your garden would decrease the distance you have to be from your neighbor’s garden to avoid cross pollination.

You could use time as an isolation method. Plants that have a limited blooming period can be managed so that the flowering of different varieties doesn’t happen at the same time. For example, on the same day you could plant two varieties of corn that have at least two weeks difference in their dates to maturity. The pollen from the first variety will have finished by the time the pollen is released from the later maturing variety. Or, you could plant two varieties of corn with the same dates to maturity, but space the planting times two weeks apart.

Some growers resort to using bags or screened cages to keep their crops from cross pollinating and some even resort to hand pollinating. Hand pollination is sometimes done with flowers in the squash family—the cucurbits. I’ve never had the patience to watch for female flowers to open, then pollinate them with pollen collected from the male flowers of the plant. The fertilized flowers would then be taped shut. If I intend to save seeds from squash crops I only plant one variety in each species in the genus Cucurbita. Although there are six species, I’ve only encountered four: Cucurbita maxima, C. mixta, C. moschata, and C. pepo. You can grow one variety of each species at the same time without worrying about cross pollination. A good seed catalog will indicate which species a squash variety belongs to.

Have goals in mind for what you are selecting for. When you are first starting out you might be happy to save any seeds at all. Collecting from as many plants as possible will give you a broader range of genetics; however, you might want to select for certain traits, such as earliness, lateness, taste, shape, size or color. If you save seeds from the plants that produce the first tomatoes of the season, you are selecting for earliness. Those plants may or may not be the same plants that produce tomatoes the longest into the season. Pay attention to what drives you to choose the plants to save from. Sometimes you will notice a plant that is doing exceptionally well, but it is not the right time to save seeds yet. Tag that plant that has the characteristics you want to preserve so you can identify it when the right time to save seeds occurs.

Principe Borghese tomatoes

Principe Borghese tomatoes

When tomatoes and peppers are harvested at full ripeness for eating, their seeds are mature and can be readily saved. For summer squashes and cucumbers, you would need to leave the vegetables on the plant until they are overgrown and way past the time to harvest for eating. Still other crops need to be left over the winter, saving the seeds when the plants flower the following year. The extra time for these plants to be in your garden needs to be accounted for in your garden plan.

Red Russian kale gone to seed.

Red Russian kale gone to seed.

The kale and collards you might have harvested for food for the table through the winter will be vacating your garden bed in March when they begin to bolt. However, if you are saving seeds from them, they may occupy that space until June. Only let one variety of cabbage family plants flower and go to seed at a time to avoid cross pollination. Before the variety you are saving from begins to flower, you should have begun to choose which plants you want to save seeds from. Most likely, the first to flower won’t be among your choices, nor will the plants that produced the least foliage to harvest through the winter. Pulling those plants out first leaves more room for the others and is part of the selection process.

Seed saving is a way to deepen your gardening experience and is an adventure that you can share with others through your neighborhood seed library. If your seeds are destined to be shared through a seed library, you will want to make sure that what you are sharing is what you say it is and hasn’t cross pollinated with anything else. If you don’t have a seed library in your neighborhood you may want to start one. You will find guidance for that project in my book Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People.

Seed libraries have been evolving at a rapid pace. Those who have been involved in that evolution will be coming together to study the issue at the First International Seed Library Forum in Tucson, Arizona, May 3-6. I’m looking forward to being one of the panelists for that event. You never know where your seed saving hobby will take you.Homeplace Earth


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Homemade wooden flats for seed starting.

Homemade wooden flats for seed starting.

If you have been following my work, you know that I start my seeds outdoors in coldframes, rather than indoors in flats. However, it was not always that way and, since I have fielded questions about seed starting lately, I thought I’d pass on the seed starting methods I employed when I did use flats.

For many years, when I started seeds for transplants I would use recycled containers or plastic flats and their inserts for the soil mix and seeds. In 1992 I became a market gardener, selling produce to two local restaurants. I knew I needed a better way to produce seedlings and followed Eliot Coleman’s advice in New Organic Grower to use soil blocks. I made wooden flats to the specifications in the book. We have a table saw and plenty of scrap wood, so the only out-of-pocket cost for the flats was for nails. The flats had only three sides to facilitate removing the soil blocks.

After a few years of working with soil blocks I decided I needed to produce more transplants in the same space, plus I didn’t want to buy sand and peat moss for the mix. In fact, I didn’t even want to bother making the mix. I did like the idea of wood flats, though. So, I turned to the advice of John Jeavons in How To Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). The soil mix he recommends is half soil and half compost, which I already have in the garden. Fill a wooden flat, level it off, and plant the seeds—much easier than making soil blocks. I put a fourth side on all my soil block flats and made some new flats to the specifications in HTGMV. The flat on top in the first photo is a Coleman flat with the fourth side added.

You can make flats any size you want, but first think of how and where you will use them. The Coleman flats were sized specific for soil blocks with the inside dimensions 8 x 18¾” and 2” deep. That was just right for 36 two-inch soil blocks. The inside dimensions of a Jeavons flat is 14” x 23” and is 3” deep. There are Master Charts in HTGMV that indicate how many transplants of each crop that can be started in a flat that size. If you depended on those Charts for your planning, you would want to make that size flat. Filled with moist soil, the Jeavons flat would weigh about 45 pounds.

The depth of the Coleman flat is 2”. The depth of the Jeavons flat is 3”. That might not seem like such a big deal, but it is. Although I continued to use the Coleman flats, I preferred the Jeavons flats for the depth and saw that the plants did better with the extra space for their roots. If I used the Coleman flats, I had to pot-on the transplants to deeper containers sooner. I think my ideal flat would be closer to the Coleman dimensions, but 3-4” deep. However, the deeper the flat, the more soil mix is needed. Jeavons recommends making 6”deep flats half the size of his regular flat to transfer seedlings to that need to grow for a few more weeks before planting in the garden, such as tomatoes and peppers. A full size flat that was 6” deep would be too heavy to manage easily. You could also make 3” deep half-size flats.

wooden flats-BLOG

Summer transplants enjoying the shade under the tree.

I stopped experimenting with flat sizes when I realized that I could just plant the seeds in the coldframes and dig up the transplants to plant in the garden. Sometimes I use wood flats to put my coldframe grown seedlings in until time to set out into the garden. I might do that if I need the space in the coldframe or to protect the seedlings from insects. Caterpillars occasionally take out my peppers in the coldframe, so I watch for the seedlings to come up, then transfer the seedlings to a flat. I want the seeds to germinate in the coldframe and begin to grow there so they will be acclimated from the beginning. When I pull out the seedlings for the flats I can choose only the best and wouldn’t have wasted flat space on ungerminated seeds or poor seedlings. Sometimes, however, if the seedlings need more space and I have it in the coldframe, I’ll spread them out there until time to go into the garden. If I do put seedlings in the flats, they stay outside until transplanting.

Peanuts started in wood flats ready to be transplanted in the garden.

Peanuts started in wood flats ready to be transplanted in the garden.

I transplant corn and peanuts and have to be careful about where I start the seeds to make sure voles don’t eat them before they germinate. Sometimes I’ll use wood flats for that. The photo with the peanuts shows flats 6” deep, but with Coleman’s dimensions. Peanuts germinate quickly and were not going to be in there long so I didn’t fill the boxes with the soil/compost mix to the full 6”. However, their roots would have quickly outgrown the 2” deep flats. When I was selling at the farmers markets I discovered that a 6” deep half-flat made a good container for potatoes at the market. It held about 15 pounds of spuds.

Although I no longer sell at the market, I still do quite a bit of gardening to feed my husband and me, as well as experiment with new things. I like to take advantage of the rhythms of nature and do things that involve less work and less stuff. Starting seeds in the coldframes fits in well with that philosophy. However, if I need them, the wood flats are handy in my shed. I still have the flats I made in 1992, minus the ones I passed on to my daughter and daughter-in-law to use in their own gardens.Homeplace Earth

UPDATE: More about wood flats at Mother Earth News.

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Winter Food Crop Rotation-- croppedIn January 2013 I wrote about what I do to have winter carrots. I begin in the fall of the previous year and plant rye in rows in my future carrot bed. The rye crop is allowed to mature all the way to seed, which around here in zone 7 is mid-June. When it is cut, the harvest is seed and straw. I lightly hoe between the rows of stubble and plant carrots. I keep this bed well watered to get the carrots off to a good start and replant if there are spots lacking good germination. Once everything is growing well the only attention is to weed periodically. The stubble decomposes, gently feeding back the soil for the carrots.

With this post I thought I would show the carrots in a three bed rotation plan that provides greens and carrots for my household through the fall and winter months, while feeding back the soil with cover crops. If you have trouble reading the text on the garden map, click on it and it will open up in a new window, as will all my photos. I grow all of my compost and mulch materials in order to avoid bringing damaging materials into my garden. In the photo you can see the skeleton of this plan. The carrots and kale and collards take up 43% of the space for the year in the total of the three beds. There are 12 bed crop months in each bed for a total of 36 bed crop months. The carrots and greens use 15.5 bed crop months, or 43%. When I plan cover crops I like to have 60% of the bed crop months in the garden in soil building crops. That would mean that the rest of the space in the three beds would need to be devoted to cover crops, plus I need to have some extra in the rest of the garden to make up for the shortage here. The winter rye that is already part of the rotation is a cover crop.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

The map you see is for the calendar year, showing the crops that are already in each bed at the beginning of the year. The green areas in the plan show when each bed is available for crops beyond the carrots and greens winter food plan. There is a lot of flexibility here. First I will give suggestions for filling those areas with cover crops. Bed 1 is already filled all twelve months, so look at Bed 2. You will harvest carrots from the fall until you have pulled them all or the weather warms in March and they start sending up a seed stalk. If you still have some then, pull them and store them in plastic bags in the fridge and you can have carrots for weeks in your kitchen. If you want to save seed, leave some of the carrots in the garden to go to seed. That might take until July so you may want to have those on one side of the bed, leaving the rest of the bed for something else. Only save from one variety to avoid crossing. My plan shows the carrots are there until March 1. That could vary and they could be there until they show signs of bolting. For a soil building crop you could plant fava beans or field peas. Favas and field pea plants can be harvested as green biomass for the compost pile when they reach full flower. In my area the blooms of fava beans tend to fall off when the weather gets hot, making it hard to save seed anyway. If you take them while blooming, you could follow with another legume, such as cowpeas or soybeans for biomass. Buckwheat can be planted anytime in there to keep the bed planted and to attract beneficial insects. The goal is to have the bed free by the middle of August for the kale and collard transplants that will overwinter. It helps to put a low tunnel on this bed then. It provides a frame for shade cloth at transplanting that is replaced by a plastic cover when the weather warrants. This low tunnel can be moved from one bed to the other to follow the brassicas crop.

Greens and roots for winter food.

Greens and roots for winter food.

In Bed 3 you can see that it begins the calendar year with kale and collards already there, left from last year’s planting. That group of crops (carrots early and kale/collards late) were planted in Bed 3 the previous year as you can see by the rotation arrows, leaving the kale/collards there to overwinter. If the harvest is for greens only, the bed will be ready for the next crop in mid-March. If you intend to save seeds from either kale or collards, those plants will be in the bed until June. Favas or field peas are an option for this bed, but so is spring wheat. That could be followed by cowpeas (or another legume), then buckwheat before it is time to plant the winter rye. In my area rye can go in anytime in October. Plant the rye in rows as to make the carrot planting easier. You can see by the rotation arrows that the crops in Bed 1 will rotate to Bed 3 in the next year and conveniently, the rye will be there, right on schedule.

If you have plenty of compost materials from the other beds in your garden you might prefer to plant crops for eating in those green spaces on the map. In that case, salad crops such as sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and bunching onions could be planted after the carrots or kale and collards. Those crops could be followed by snap beans. Bed 2 needs to be open by mid-August, but you have into the fall in Bed 3 leaving the possibility of planting sweet potatoes in late May/early June after the salad crops. Winter squash is a possibility in Bed 3 and you can use the rye straw harvested from Bed 1 as mulch. Potatoes followed by snap beans could happen in either bed.

Of course, the timing of these crops depends on your location. If you enjoy going to the farmers market for fresh vegetables or belong to a summer CSA, but also like to garden, you may want to consider this winter food plan. It might do well for those of you who like to travel in the summer, as long as you are around for the key planting times. You will find other garden maps and plans in my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Once you learn how to plan for the whole year, the possibilities are endless.

I will be talking about all of this on Saturday, January 31, 2015 in the presentation that Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and I are giving at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in Richmond, VA. Come and see us!Homeplace Earth




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