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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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Cornstalks and Machete

Use a machete to cut corn stalks into manageable lengths for the compost pile.

As you harvest the last of your summer crops, realize that the steps you take now are the beginning of next year’s garden. You could just leave everything as it is, looking not so good through the winter. Mother Nature likes to keep things green, so will provide her own seeds to fill in the space if you don’t. That’s where the unwanted weeds come from. The spent plants from your summer crops are actually valuable compost material at the ready. Harvest them for your compost pile as you clean up your garden. Next year this time the compost you make now will be available to spread as fertilizer for your garden. If you have grown corn and sunflowers, those stalks are wonderful sources of carbon for your compost. Some folks till all their spent plants, including cornstalks, into the soil. However, since I advocate managing your garden with hand tools, I chop the stalks down and cut them into manageable lengths with a machete, as shown in the photo. The cornstalks then go into the compost pile with all the other harvestable plants, plus some soil. You can see me in action chopping cornstalks and adding them to the compost in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. When you look at the plants in your garden, make sure to recognize their value as a compost material.

Winte killed oats in late February.

Winterkilled oats in late February.

After you clean up the garden beds by harvesting compost material, you will need to plant cover crop seeds. If you have beds producing food through the winter, that’s great. It’s the rest of the garden I’m talking about. The crops you plant now will determine how each bed is to be used next year. If you intend to have bed space devoted to early season plantings, such as peas, lettuce, greens, and onions, you want the cover crops to be finished by then. Cereal rye, often called winter rye, is a great cover crop for winter. However, it is not so great if you are managing it with hand tools and you want to plant those early spring crops. The rye will have put down a tremendous amount of roots and be growing vigorously in early spring. Options to plant now in those beds destined for early spring crops are oats or Daikon radish, two crops that will winterkill if you get severe enough winter weather. Here in Virginia in Zone 7 we usually have weather that will cause these crops to winterkill, however I remember a few mild winters when they didn’t. I also remember a winter I planted oats in a bed that had compost piles on the bed just to the north of it. The compost provided enough protection to keep the oats growing into the spring.

If you choose the route of planting crops to winterkill, you need to get them planted early enough so that they have a chance to produce a large volume of biomass before the weather turns cold. If you don’t already have these crops in the ground, the time to plant them is NOW. Actually, anytime in the past three weeks would have been better. Another alternative for that space for early spring crops is to mulch it with leaves for the winter. The leaves will protect the soil over the winter and when you pull them back in early spring you will find a fine layer of compost where the leaves meet the soil. The worms would have been working on those leaves all winter. Pull the leaves back a couple weeks before you intend to plant to allow the sun to warm the soil.

Rye and vetch cut at pollen shed.

This rye and vetch cover crop was cut at pollen shed (May 7) and will dry to become a mulch for the next crop.

You want a thick cover of plant growth with any cover crop. Planting at the right time will encourage that. The legumes, such as hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas are often used as fall cover crops. It is best to get them in about a month before your last frost to ensure a good stand. That should encourage you to begin cleaning up the parts of your garden that have finished producing. Not all your garden beds will be host to the same cover crop, so you can do it bed by bed—an advantage over working on the whole garden at the same time. These legumes will begin to grow and will provide protection for the soil through the winter. In early spring they will take off, growing to their full capacity by the time of your last spring frost. You may have seen crimson clover flowering in garden beds at that time. You can cut this biomass with a sickle and add it to the compost pile. It would be a nitrogen component. You could lay it down as mulch right in the bed, but it would soon dissolve into the soil and not last as long as mulch that has more carbon. The advantage of the legumes is the nitrogen they leave in the soil from the nodules on their roots. If you should need the bed sooner than the date of your last frost, you could easily cut the legume a little early, leaving the roots. They are not so tenacious that you can’t plant into the bed soon after cutting.

The winter cover crop that will produce the most carbon for your compost and/or mulch is the rye that I mentioned earlier. It is also the crop that you can plant the latest into the fall and still have a good stand; making it a possible choice after things like tomatoes and peppers that produce until the first fall frost. You can let it grow to seed and cut it in early summer (mid-June here), giving you seed and mature straw. Or, you can cut it at pollen shed (about May 7 here) and leave it in the bed as mulch. Wait two weeks before planting to let the roots begin to die back. The bed would be suitable for putting in transplants, but not for seeds at that time. Often rye is planted with a legume. If you are planting late in the season, choose Austrian winter peas as a companion.

The information in my DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan and my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, helps you to determine how to plan these cover/compost crops into your crop rotation. In the DVD you see me explaining a four bed rotation as I fill in the crop selections on a whiteboard. The book has three sample garden maps accompanied by explanations. The sample garden maps in the DVD and in the book have crops filling the beds for all twelve months of the year. Knowing how to fit enough cover crops in your garden plan to provide all of your compost and mulch material is definitely a skill that takes concentration and practice to learn. I hope the educational materials that I have produced will help many gardeners along that path. The most important thing is to just get started and plant something. Make note of your planting time and watch how it grows. The learning is in the doing.Homeplace Earth

 

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Provider bush beans

Provider bush beans

When you are planning your garden you need to plan when your harvest will begin. You don’t want to be off on vacation when the beans are ready to be picked. If you need the harvest by a certain date, knowing the days to maturity will help you decide on your planting date. It is good to know the length of harvest, also. Some crops will be picked all at once and some will be picked over a matter of weeks. My garden planning skills were put to the test this year as we planned for another wedding. Our youngest son, Luke, married the love of his life, Stephanie, on August 2. I was to provide the snap beans, lettuce, garlic, and some of the flowers. Stephanie and our daughter, Betsy, were growing the rest of the flowers. Stephanie and Luke grew all the potatoes and some of the other veggies, such as zucchini, and Betsy grew the cabbage that became the coleslaw for the wedding feast.

Normally, planning snap beans for an event is no problem for me. I like to plant Provider, a tried-and-true early variety. The problem is, when I sat down with the Plant/Harvest Schedule to chart when to plant and when to expect a harvest, the date I wanted to plant the Provider beans was right after we would be getting back from a week-long trip. That would be the trip to the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington and to Victoria, British Columbia. I did not want to worry about making sure I got that planting in. If something happened that delayed my time in the garden upon our return, I would have missed my window of opportunity. I was going to have to reach out of my comfort zone and plant another variety.

I checked the seed catalogs for a variety that took a week longer than Provider to mature. High Mowing listed Provider at 50 days and Jade at 55 days. I remember a market grower friend commenting favorably about Jade at one time, so I ordered Jade. I thought it would be good to grow some yellow wax beans, also, since the wedding colors were green and yellow. It had been a long time since I grew wax beans, but I remembered them to take longer to mature and were usually curled when I grew them in my market garden. High Mowing listed Gold Rush Yellow Wax beans with the same 55 days to maturity as Jade and they were straight beans; just what I was looking for. The Jade and Gold Rush beans were planted on May 29, the day before we left on the trip.

Provider may be listed at 50 days, but I usually begin harvesting six weeks (42 days) after planting and harvest over a two week period, with a little smaller harvest for the first and last pickings, but the yield is generally spread out. In Grow a Sustainable Diet, I encourage you to grow for yourself and learn the ins-and-outs of the crops and varieties before you grow to sell to others. Knowing the ins-and-outs of the varieties is important. At 47 days after planting, the Gold Rush beans were ready and I picked about two-thirds of the total harvest that day. Now that I look back at the seed catalog, I see that “concentrated harvest period” was in the description for Gold Rush. Luckily the caterer was willing to take the vegetables early. I also harvested some of the Jade beans that day. At 54 days after planting I harvested two-thirds of what would be the total harvest for the Jade beans. The last harvest of both varieties was at 58 days.

Since the caterer didn’t mind the vegetables arriving early, it all worked out. For Betsy’s wedding four years ago, our friend Molly catered the event and the harvest was more closely planned; vegetables arriving early would have been a big inconvenience. Even though the days to maturity are listed in the seed catalog or on the packets, it is only an approximate time. Learn what the days to maturity are in your garden for the varieties you choose. Have at least one variety of each crop that you can use to compare new varieties to, such as I did with Provider beans. Make a note of the length of harvest and nuances, such as matures all at one time, color, shape (curled beans or straight), and any other characteristics that might be important some day. This information will be extremely helpful to you if you needed to grow food for a certain event; and certainly if you needed  to satisfy customers.

yellow and green canned snap bensGrowing both colors of beans again made me want to include that in my plan for next year. My signature dish is a cold bean salad. I include cowpeas that I always have as dried beans in the pantry and green beans which are either fresh from the garden or canned. To that I add anything I can think of from the garden and a vinaigrette. I used some of the Gold Rush beans in the bean salad that I made for the rehearsal dinner. I believe next year I will can green and yellow beans together especially to have on hand for the bean salad. I was able to put up some of the extra this year.

Luke and Steph at table - BLOGFlowers are not my specialty, but the bride wanted zinnias and they are easy to grow and a sure thing to have in August. Stephanie likes puffy flowers and chose Teddy Bear sunflowers, in addition to the zinnias. It is usually hard to find days to maturity for flowers, but these were listed as maturing at 60 days. I didn’t want to plant them too early and miss the blooms for the wedding. Unfortunately, I waited a little too long. They didn’t begin blooming until a few days after the wedding. Not to worry, there were many more things in the yard blooming that we could add, including black-eyed Susans, tansy, and Rose of Sharon, that we hadn’t planned on. Stephanie had two sunflowers ready by August 2 and the rest of her planting bloomed while they were on their honeymoon. Besides the happy bride and groom, in the photo you can see Stephanie’s bouquet, the table centerpieces with flowers, and their dinner plates full of homegrown food.

The wedding was wonderful. It took some planning to have the produce ready at the right time, but the more you do that, even for your own dinner table, the easier it gets. If something comes up, such as the trip for us, you will have the skills and knowledge to take it in stride. I hope your garden is producing well and that you are finding time to share it with others this summer.Homeplace Earth

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4.1 How Much To Grow - BLOGHow Much to Grow is the title of Chapter 4 in Grow a Sustainable Diet. If your garden is small and whatever you get from it is a welcome addition to your table, you might not be concerned with exactly how many pounds are produced of anything. You are just happy to have homegrown food in your meals. If you want to be able to predict how much your harvest will be so you can plan to have a certain amount for your family to eat, you can put pencil to paper now and do some calculating.

butternut squash

butternut squash

Chapter 4 contains a worksheet (you see part of it here) to help with those calculations. (There is a link in the book that will take you to PDFs of all the worksheets so you can print them out.) Whether you are trying to decide how much to grow for your family or for your CSA, the process is the same. Decide how much you want for each week and how many weeks you will be eating it, or in the case of a CSA, how many weeks you need to put it in the CSA boxes. If you have no idea how many pounds of something you need, go to the grocery store and pick out a reasonable quantity for a meal in the produce department. Weigh it on the scale that is right there. Multiply that weight by how many meals per week that item will supply and you have the pounds needed per week. The number of weeks you want to eat something could be only the weeks it is fresh from the garden, or every week of the year if you are preserving for eating out of season. Rather than the weight, you may need to know the count; how many of something you will have, such as butternut squash. Sometimes you can find that information in the seed catalogs, and sometimes not. From my experience, I know that I can expect about 4 squash per plant. If the catalog doesn’t have that information for the variety you choose, read the description of all the varieties, as well as the specifics for each crop to get an estimate.

Finding out how much is needed is the easy part. You need to know how much you can grow in your area and pounds/100 ft² is a good universal measure to use. How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons has Master Charts that can help you with that. The Master Charts have columns for Biointensive yields and for the US Average for each crop. Use those figures as guidelines. Your yield will depend on many factors, including your soil, climate, and management style. You might already know how much you can harvest in the area planted. If not, this exercise should encourage you to record your harvests this year, at least for the crops you are most interested in.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas

Mississippi Silver cowpeas

Remember the charts are only guidelines. For the Biointensive yield, the Master Charts give three numbers; the beginning yield that you could expect getting at some time, the intermediate yield that could be reached after good soil building, and a high yield that few might reach. The Biointensive yield of winter squash is shown as 50/100/350. There is no US Average shown in the Master Charts, but my research determines that number to be 49.5 pounds/100 ft². The target yield I use for butternut squash is 150 pounds/100 ft². I have reached that yield and sometimes higher in my garden. For cowpeas, the Biointensive yield is 2.4/4/5.9. The US Yield of cowpeas isn’t shown, but through my research I’ve determined it to be 2.6 pounds. I live in a great climate for cowpeas and have found I can use 5 pounds/100 ft² as my target yield. On the other hand, I would love to plan on getting 100 pounds/100 ft² regularly with my potatoes, but the voles keep the yield below that. The Biointensive yield for potatoes is 100/200/780 and the US Average is 84.2. Depending on the variety, I don’t always reach the low Biointensive yield of 100 pounds for tomatoes. The US Average for tomatoes is 67 pounds for fresh and 153.4 pounds for processing tomatoes per 100 ft².

From your garden map you will know how much space you have available. My post Making a Garden Map can help you with that. It becomes a balancing act, deciding how much space to allot for each crop. Having a target yield makes planning easier. Your target yield may need to be adjusted from year to year, but at least you have someplace to start from. Between cover crops and food crops, plan to have your beds full all year. Immediately after your early spring crops are harvested, plant the next crop. Leaving the beds empty is an invitation for Mother Nature to plant her favorites, which we tend to think of as weeds.

The rest of the page of the How Much to Grow worksheet that you don’t see is a space for comments and three columns for the amount of calories, protein, and calcium per pound of food. It is always good to leave space for comments—something about that crop you want to remember. Since I keep records for my certification as a GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Minifarming teacher, I am interested in the amount of calories, protein, and calcium in each crop. There might be other things that you want to record in those additional columns.

Use this information to enhance what you are doing, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Keep track of what you can. As you find you have more questions, add the appropriate recordkeeping to your system. Most importantly—have fun in your garden this year!Homeplace Earth

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Come out and see me at my book signing on Saturday, February 22 at Ashland Coffee and Tea, Ashland, VA 23005. It is a good treatment for the spring fever you will have by the weekend with the warming trend coming. Find more upcoming events at http://homeplaceearth.com/5.html.

Book Signing and Movies-flyer-FACEBOOK

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GrowSustDiet~Cat100%25My new book Grow a Sustainable Diet: planning and growing to feed  ourselves and the earth is now available through my website at HomeplaceEarth.com. The home page contains two recently added preview videos about our DVDs. The purchase page contains more information about the book, plus the “add to cart” button to buy it.

You’ll find more information about what this book is about at my August 13, 2013 post  Grow a Sustainable Diet–the Book! 

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williams pride in full bloom 2013 - closeup-BLOG

Williams Pride apple blossoms

What you see in the photo is blossoms on a Williams Pride apple tree. The data stored automatically from my digital camera says that photo was taken on April 16, 2013. What a handy thing that is for the camera to record that information! I surely didn’t at the time. What difference does it make that I know when that happened? Knowing when the bushes and trees in your yard bloom, drop petals, and whatever else they do, helps you to know when the time is right for planting your vegetable crops without looking at the calendar. The study of recurring plant and animal life cycles and their relationship to weather is called phenology. By studying these things, we can learn how our climate is changing from year to year and, more specifically, we can know how things are doing this year. Are things blooming later than usual? In that case you wouldn’t want to be too anxious and plant your vegetable crops earlier than normal. My friends, Pam Dawling and Ira Wallace, keep phenology records of what is happening at their farms in Louisa County, Virginia. In her book, Sustainable Market Farming, Pam says that falling apple blossoms are said to be a phenological sign that conditions are good for transplanting celery and celeriac. She goes on to say that the time to plant is after the last frost and the weather has settled. For planning purposes, I use April 26 as the date for my last expected frost. I imagine those petals would have been dropping by then. You can read more about what Pam has to say about phenology and even see the chart she keeps for the gardens at Twin Oaks Community at http://sustainablemarketfarming.com/tag/phenology/. Ira mentions phenological signs in her book Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. In this era of climate change, the date on the calendar of when to plant things will gradually shift, but nature will already be on top of it.

The temperature of the soil is also an indicator of when to plant. In fact, soil temperature has a lot to do with the phenological signs I just mentioned. Just because the air temperature has warmed up, doesn’t mean the soil is ready for seeds and plants. Over the years I’ve noticed that we have a warm week in the first half of April. The temperature might even soar into the 80’s. I’ve also noticed that in the next couple weeks after that, April will deliver cold temperatures before the weather settles. I taught at a community college and no matter how much I talked about expected last frost dates (and that it wasn’t until late in April in our area), some of my students would plant warm weather crops during those early warm days. A new farmer once asked me when I planted summer squash and snap beans. When I replied after April 26, he said he got that same answer from a neighbor. It was that warm spell in early April and he had just planted his warm weather crops. He thought I was being too cautious. I advised him to only plant early what he was prepared to lose and to plant his main crop when the soil was warmer.  Of course, many farmers have high tunnels and use row covers now to get a head start on planting. They are warming the soil to prepare the right conditions for the seeds and transplants.

compost thermometer in kale bed

compost thermometer in kale bed

You can check the soil temperature by putting the probe of a thermometer a few inches into the soil. I use a compost thermometer for that. It has a long stem that serves two purposes. I can read it without bending down so far and I can find it when I need it. I often leave it in a garden bed or a coldframe so I know where it is. I can readily know the temperature in that spot and pick it up to move it to a new location. I have a thermometer I keep in my kitchen that I bought from a cheesemaking supplier. I use it when I make yogurt, but it would do to check my soil. You can buy an inexpensive (about $7) thermometer at the grocery store. Those thermometers even come with a plastic sleeve to protect the stem. That would do fine to check your soil temperature. As long as you are keeping records of phenological signs, you might record the soil temperature at the same time. Keep in mind that it will vary if you are checking it at different times of the day or in different locations, so be consistent. Nancy Bubel’s book The New Seed Starters Handbook contains helpful charts on Soil Temperature Conditions for Vegetable Seed Germination, the Number of Days for Vegetable Seeds to Emerge at Different Temperatures, and the Percentage of Normal Vegetable Seedlings Produced at Different Temperatures.

ladybug on cowpea plant

ladybug on cowpea plant

Knowing what the insects and birds are doing should be part of your phenological records. If you haven’t gotten your record keeping set up before things start blooming and insects and birds start appearing, take photos and let your camera record the date for you, if your camera does that. If insects are on a plant, by taking the photo, you will have a visual record of the insect and of plants they like, whether they are beneficial insects or harmful ones. This photo shows a ladybug on a cowpea plant. I’ve found other beneficials attracted to the cowpeas. As I write this, we are in the grip of weather colder than normal, even for winter here. Before it hit, someone told me she knew a weather event was coming because she saw bluebirds at her bird feeder. Since bluebirds eat insects, they were usually not visitors to her feeder.

At the very least, even if you never record any of these things, start to notice them. Keep your eyes and ears open and you will become more in tune to where you are and what is going on around you. There is a whole other world available to you, right in your garden. All you have to do is take the time to noticeHomeplace Earth

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