When your Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog arrives in the next few weeks, the first thing to catch your eye may be the varieties identified as "NEW!" Johnny's has more than 100 new seed varieties in the 2010 catalog. It may seem a bit overwhelming how do you sort through all the new varieties, compare them with old varieties, and make your selections? If you're a beginner or trying a completely new crop, where do you even begin? Here is a systematic way to go about choosing varieties:
- First, make a list of everything you grew last season. Highlight the varieties that did well, and mark those for reordering. In the unlikely event that one of your varieties is missing from the catalog, start reading descriptions to see if anything is named as a replacement. If you don't see any mention of your star variety, give us a call. If seed is available, your sales rep can special order it for you. If there was a crop failure, however, and it's just not possible to get seed, you'll have to look for a replacement variety.
- Next, think about the crops that didn't do well for you last season. Analyze the problems you had with each disease, low yield, too quick to bolt, sun scald on the fruits, and so on. Go back to the catalog and read descriptions carefully to find varieties with traits that may address your problem. Johnny's catalog descriptions use objective criteria to help you understand the differences among varieties, but if you are unsure about anything, call us. Pick at least two varieties to test.
- At this point, you are well-positioned to repeat your successes and overcome your failures from the past. Now you can think about adding some new crops, whether they are new in the catalog or just new to you. We recommend that you make a cup of tea, find a comfortable chair, and start reading the catalog from start to finish. If a variety description appeals to you or stimulates marketing ideas, check it off for further consideration. Look at those identified as "NEW!" to see if you want to give them a try.
- If you're like most growers, your wish list will be bigger than your garden and you will have to refine your selections. Check out a few forums online to see what other growers have said about varieties you are considering. Cornell University has an online vegetable variety-rating project with more than 5,000 varieties listed. Growers from all parts of the country contribute to the project, so you may find information about varieties that do well in your area.
- If a crop is completely new to you, find out if your state Cooperative Extension Service has any recommendations on varieties. Check with other states in your region, too. Varieties that have been tested and performed well, even if they are not the newest varieties, provide a good starting point and can be used as a basis for comparison.
- Think about extending your season with hoophouses and row covers in winter or shade cloth in summer. Look for special symbols in the catalog that denote cold tolerance, heat tolerance, and greenhouse production. You will be more successful at season extension if you choose the right varieties.
- Set up variety trials so that they produce useful data. See the Johnny's website for information on how to conduct a variety trial.
- Finally, keep good records. Record information about planting dates, harvest dates, yield, insect and disease problems, appearance, and market acceptance. Next year, when it's time to start variety selection again, those records will make your work much easier.
Planning your field or garden layout is one of the most challenging aspects of vegetable production because multiple goals must be accommodated in the plan. Rotations, planting dates, time to maturity, duration of harvest, and microclimates all have to be considered. You also need to know recommended crop spacing so you can calculate how many plants will fit. It's a complicated exercise, especially considering that it should change every year, so you need to design your next planting plan with an eye to the future. Experienced growers find it helpful to divide their farms into "management units" as a way of reducing the complexity. A management unit on a large farm might be an entire field. On a small farm, it could be a block of beds. In a garden, each bed might be considered its own unit. The overall goal of your design is to reduce work and waste while providing the best possible growing conditions for each crop. Here are some considerations that should guide your planning:
- Figure out how much you want to grow of each crop, based on your market expectations and past experience. Then calculate how many plants you need to produce that quantity and how much space you need for that number of plants. Johnny's has several resources to expedite these calculations, such as the yield chart in the catalog and a new seed calculator online.
- Crop rotations over time are extremely important in vegetable production success. Rotating crops breaks up insect, weed, and disease cycles and helps to balance nutrients across the farm. The first element of crop rotation should be based on the botanical families of your crops. Don't grow plants in the same family on the same piece of land for at least three years; four or five years is better. Ideally, crops can be rotated through your management units, so the best system is to have four or five units for a long rotation.
- Group crops by production practices such as cultivation practices, row covering, days to maturity, lines of drip tape needed, nutrient and water demand, and pest control. Keeping crops with similar requirements together will expedite tasks and give the field a neater appearance later in the season. For example, it might be quickest to plant lettuce and onions in the same bed because they can be planted at the same time in spring. But lettuce will be harvested within 45 days, whereas storage onions might be in the field for 100 days or more. The bed for the onions will need to be weeded and watered long after the lettuce is gone. Try to group crops that are planted and harvested at approximately the same time.
- Locate crops according to harvest requirements. Some crops such as watermelons and sweet corn are so heavy you'll need a tractor or vehicle to move them out of the field. Others such as salad mix can be carried in a tub. Think about these and other access issues in planning your fields. With all these nuances in mind, you can start mapping. Some growers use spreadsheets. Others use index cards, with one crop on each card. Others map out the next season on graph paper, then cut the units apart and reassemble them for the following season. However you do it, it takes considerable skill and vision to create a multiyear planting plan. But once accomplished, your plan will be a tremendous asset to your farm.
In this season of gift-giving, you'll find stores stocked with food baskets, herbal gifts, and other products from the garden. If you're like most gardeners, you'll think, "I could have made that!" And you know your friends and family would much rather have homegrown, homemade gifts than something mass-produced in a factory far away. So make a resolution to plan for next year's gift-giving. Now is the time to survey stores for product ideas that you can incorporate into your 2010 growing plans. Pick one or two specific products and decide what you will need for ingredients and containers. Remember that presentation is important with food gifts, so keep your eyes open for attractive bottles, baskets, or other containers. With a little planning, and perhaps a little extra planting, you can have everything you need to create memorable, personal gifts. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about gifts to grow next year:
- A winter vegetable basket. Set aside onions, garlic, carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash as you harvest them, and assemble mixtures into brand-new baskets. Tuck in a few of your favorite recipes for inspiration.
- Garlic braids. Grow more than enough garlic for your markets, and be sure to cure the bulbs sufficiently to provide the best shelf life. Softneck varieties are easiest to braid. Weave in some bunches of fresh herbs, and tie on a raffia bow.
- Herbal vinegars are pretty as well as useful. Here's a detailed instruction sheet on making herb vinegars.
- Hot pepper jellies require time at the stove, but their jewel-like colors make them perfect gifts. Attach a tag suggesting an easy appetizer of cream cheese smothered with hot pepper jelly, served with thin slices of bread or crackers.
- Herb mixes. Dry culinary herbs thoroughly, then crush them with a rolling pin between sheets of wax paper. Mixtures of herbs can be used in all kinds of products. You can put them in small cellophane or plastic bags (check in the candy-making section of hobby stores for supplies) and staple them closed with a tag suggesting the herbs as a rub for chicken or fish, a dip mix, or to sprinkle over roasting vegetables. Add them to dried beans for a soup mix. Or mix up the dry ingredients for biscuits, attach a recipe for herb biscuits, and decorate the package with a biscuit cutter.
- Herb salts and sugars. Wash fresh herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary, and basil, and dry completely on a towel. Put a 1-inch layer of kosher salt or sea salt in an airtight container, and then make several layers of salts and herbs. The salt will absorb the flavors of the herbs, and can be packaged into small, decorative jars for gift-giving. Sugar can be used the same way, though you might want to use herbs such as lavender, mint, and lemon balm, and attach a scone or sugar cookie recipe.
As your outside work winds down, you may want to spend some time learning about a new growing practice, investigating a new crop, or just catching up on what's new in the world of market gardening. We invite you to visit Johnny's website and explore the videos, articles, and technical sheets that are waiting for you. Go to johnnyseeds.com and follow the links to the video library for short videos of the tools and techniques we use at the JSS research farm. For technical information sheets, go to a product detail and click on the "More Product Information" tab for a list of related resources.
Food safety issues are heating up
Market growers may soon be affected by federal food safety legislation and regulation. Some wholesale buyers are already requiring food safety certification for vendors. These are issues that could change the way you farm and market your produce. Growing for Market, the magazine for market farmers, is following food safety issues closely and publishing regular updates on its website.