Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What's New At The Farm? 4/28/10

The fact that April is nearly over is new.

Things all around us are noticeably early this year. The leaves are out two to three weeks earlier, the fiddleheads are coming fast and the blackflies are out in force.

Dandelions are starting to bloom; there are some dandy ones in the garden right now. Growing up on a farm in central Maine we had many dishes of steamed dandelions. My father would go out and get them and my mother would clean and cook them, and we'd all eat them. Mother always said cleaning them was the hard part. The best ones came from the garden just before we plowed it down or along the edges of the cornfields. Big and bushy, harvested before the blossoms opened up, and steamed with ample amounts of creamery butter and salt; can't beat that! My folks harvested, cleaned, blanched and froze dandelions for eating all winter well into their eighties; perhaps dandelions contributed to their longevity.

The key to harvesting flavorful (notice I didn't say bitter) dandelions is to get them before they blossom. The blossoms can be picked and deep fried with a batter coating much like you'd do onion rings. I think cooking them like this takes away the bitterness often associated with blooming dandelions.

You would think living out here we would have eaten fiddleheads as well as dandelions. Well, in a word, no. I never ate fiddleheads until about ten years ago. Peggy and I were at camp and went for a walk up along a nearby stream where we found a small patch of them. We picked maybe a half a pound, washed them in the stream, took them back to camp and steamed them for supper; delicious! Of course, like everything, fresh is always best. We went to camp this past Sunday and picked about two gallons of them; we'll have some freshly steamed, again with salt and butter, and we'll pickle the rest. Never heard of pickling fiddleheads? It's as easy as it gets.

Washing in clean water is just as important as picking them in unpolluted areas. We wash the fiddleheads to get all the brown papery husks off the fern heads three or four times in potable water, cook them until done (not overdone), then pack then into pint jars. Once packed we pour Italian dressing to cover the fiddleheads, screw a top on and refrigerate until we want to eat them. We've taken them ice fishing a good ten months after we processed them and they were fine. The only issue is that they take up refrigerator space until they're used, oh well. There's stuff in the fridge that isn't nearly as important as the pickled fiddleheads so I guess we can make some room.

On the farm this week, we are working in the greenhouses "bumping up" seedlings and doing some field work as well. This year finds us working the fields about two to three weeks earlier than normal, but it will give us a chance to get ahead a bit in case something happens. We could get 3 weeks of rain, so it's better to get some field prep done well ahead of schedule. Most of the fields have been plowed and many have been fertilized, so now we move on to making beds and laying plastic.

The wildlife report this week includes a couple of pairs of Canada geese hanging out at the irrigation pond, lots of swallows using the bird houses I put out and a large yellow spotted salamander. I went home for lunch today and I spotted a large (6") yellow spotted salamander near the compost pile. He looked pretty cold and wasn't moving, but was still alive, so I moved him into a covered area of the compost pile. As it rained this morning he was probably headed to the pond to breed but was surprised at the cold temps. Probably another case of "it feels like spring but the calendar says it's still April." Spotted salamanders are quite common but seldom seen during the day as they are nocturnal hunters and hide under logs and in leaves during the days.

Until next week, Brian

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pest of the week: Striped Cucumber Beetle

Striped Cucumber Beetle (Acalymma vittatum) transmits Bacterial Wilt (Erwinia tracheiphila)

Life Cycle: Adults overwinter in leaf litter and soil, emerging in spring. Young cucurbit plants are especially susceptible to large numbers of adults feeding. This activity can reduce yields and sometimes kill seedlings. Adult females lay eggs near the base of the cucurbit plants. Larvae hatch from eggs to feed on plant roots, pupate, and emerge as adults after about 3 weeks. Emergence usually occurs in late summer and feeding begins on plants and maturing fruits. Feeding damage can make fruit unmarketable. Adult beetles can transmit Bacterial Wilt through feeding on plants. Bacterial Wilt can cause plant decline, reduced yields, and possible plant death.

Plants affected: All cucurbits are susceptible to cucumber beetle damage. The Spotted Cucumber beetle also feeds on corn, asparagus, and eggplant. Young seedlings and maturing fruit are most affected by feeding damage. Cucumbers and melons are more susceptible to bacterial wilt than squash and pumpkins. Young, vigorously growing plants are more susceptible to bacterial wilt.

Control: Spray or dip seedlings with Surround WP (#9661) to deter insect attack. Reapply if it rains or as the plant grows out of the spray. Use a preventative application of Pyganic (#9192/#9532) and then use Entrust (#9068) for the next application, switching between the two for maximum knockdown potential. Use Rotenone-Pyrethrin Concentrate (#9336) as a control. Place sticky traps at plant height to monitor populations. Use pheromone lures inside the sticky trap to attract cucumber beetles away from plants and trap them on the sticky trap.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Product spotlight, May 2010


Johnny's has a mulch for every application. All mulches provide inexpensive weed control, and some offer other benefits such as increasing yields and repelling insects. Here's a product comparison chart that will help you find the best mulch for your situation; complete details are in the catalog and at

Direct-seeded flowers

Many flowers can be direct seeded now for blooms this summer. Ammi, Bells of Ireland, Bupleurum, Calendula, Carthamus, Cosmos, Euphorbia, Larkspur, Nigella,
Sunflowers, Tithonia, and Zinnias are all recommended for outdoor planting. Here are two varieties we especially love:

Calendula 'Flashback' offers a wide range of colors, and all have stunning red and burgundy hues on the underside of the petals that gives this variety an intriguing appearance. Available as a mix or in separate color families.
'Solar Flashback' is pink with yellow petal tips; 'Triangle Flashback' is a pastel peach-pink; 'Antares Flashback' includes orange, peach, apricot, yellow, and cream; 'Sunshine Flashback' is a rich orange.
Cosmos 'Double Click' is a double cosmos with 2-3" flowers in shades of pink, red, and white. Unlike the single-flower forms, 'Double Click' blooms hold up nearly a week in the vase. You'll get a nice assortment of colors, some fully double and a small percentage semidouble.

'Katrina' and 'Sultan' cucumbers

Seedless cucumbers are the most popular types for fresh eating, and Johnny's has all the best varieties.
New this year for greenhouse or hoophouse production is 'Katrina', which produces an early to midseason crop. It is best when picked at about 6" long, and has a sweet flavor and crisp texture. Organic seed.

Also new this year is 'Sultan', a Beit Alpha type for outdoor production (not recommended for greenhouse or hoophouse). Vigorous, disease-resistant vines are very productive. The cucumbers are dark green, spineless, thin skinned, and flavorful.

What's New At The Farm? 4/21/10

Busy, busy, busy.

Now that the weather has warmed up and perhaps straightened out for a while we can get some field work done. We've completed some projects around the farm that needed to be done before we start in the fields this spring. Always fun jobs including trimming trees and bushes around the fence, picking up strips of plastic in the fields that got missed last fall and modifying the poly tunnel so more light gets in. Other projects done are the raking, cleaning up piles of road sand and cleaning out the flower beds.

The cement has been poured in greenhouse # 2 and is set up. In a couple of days the contractors will come in and do some final work and then that will be ready for the new benches. It will be a real greenhouse then. New concrete and new benches and it will be a real pleasure to work in this house. Now I'll take aim of Greenhouse 1 next. This house we built around 1990 and we are thinking about replacing it or at least pouring concrete and installing new benches; something to think about for next spring for sure.

The wildlife report this week includes the heron I mentioned last week. Actually on my way to work on Thursday last week I spied one heading south; perhaps he knows something I don't. Other than that, the fiddleheads are up - early this year, the White suckers are spawning and the alewives are start their spring migration. Turkey vultures are showing up; cleaning up what died in the winter and what got hit in the road this spring. Tree swallows are back but I haven't seen the barn swallows yet. Black flies are out but not too bad right now.

On the home front we have two ducks sitting on nests; one Muscovy and one Call. Each has ~ 12 eggs, so we should have plenty of ducklings. I bought a dozen day old ducklings two weeks ago and have 41 in the incubator. I think soon ducks will outnumber chickens. The guineas aren't laying this year; I think we lost our only male last year and they're not interested in laying. My summer projects include a couple of "summer cottages" for the ducks; seasonal use with a nice view. Broilers due Thursday or Friday this week to further fill up the henhouse.

Back to the farm: Planting in the greenhouse continues with Greenhouse 3 rapidly filling up. We've moved some peppers to GH # 1 as the electrical load from many heat mats was causing breakers to trip. Not something you want to happen over the weekend when no one is really here.

I expect much field work will commence in the next ten days to two weeks. It is nearly dry enough to work all but the lowest fields so we should be good to go. We've got 200 yards of compost and 31,000 pounds dehydrated chicken manure to spread and work into the ground in the upcoming weeks. Much of our time will be spent spreading and incorporating these fertilizers to prepare for planting. We've got 47 acres to prepare this year; both for crops and for rotation plantings, so I guess we'd better get busy.

Until next week, Brian

Monday, April 19, 2010

What's New At The Farm? 4/14/10

I would say that the bulk of the migrating birds are back now. The wildlife report this week includes tree swallows, turtles and abundant woodchucks. The grass is growing furiously and the Canadian geese are taking full advantage of it. Lots of ducks around and I'm sure any day I'll spot some herons. Ospreys are wheeling overhead at the house as they're building a nest near the pond behind the house. Every time they fly over the hens duck for cover thinking it's going to take them away.

The swallows are back and I've got to hustle getting the new birdhouses up. They're back earlier than I remember so they caught me unaware. I built new houses last year which I take down in the fall and store undercover to prolong their life, but I need to get them out as early as I can get out there, especially in a spring like this one. That will be a "fun" project I can do when I'm thoroughly tired of working at my desk.

It's hard not to rush the season now. The grass and cover crops are greening up, the lawns are about to be mowed and many people want to get into the gardens and plant. The unusually warm weather of the past couple of months have got us to believing spring arrived early this year. A long and hard look at the calendar and, yes, it's still very early spring. I think planting lettuce, onions and probably peas would be safe now but I'd hold off on the plants that like it warmer. I planted my raised bed last night with lettuce, radishes, greens and carrots. The raised bed is 4 X 8 and about a foot deep, filled with a greenhouse potting medium. I installed plastic pipe hoops so I can cover it with row covers to keep the insects and ducks out and the heat in. I'm anxious for some fresh radishes and greens.

I think I'll build another raised bed and put sweet onions in it for use this summer. And another one for summer squash, cukes and zukes. Building and filling two more should keep me busy this spring along with everything else I have going on. Let's see, I have more work to do on my boat, finish painting the windows in the henhouse, ducklings are due in just under a month, baby chicks due in ten days, and the chicks and ducklings I already have need to be tended twice daily still. Seems she let me go to the farm supply store without her last week; she should know better, as I came home with 12 Pekin ducklings.

And there's always the garden: 15 blueberry bushed ordered, but I have a plan. I'm going to take the outside bed of the garden, 150 feet long, and turn that into perennial fruits. They'll be 15+ blueberry bushes, a new asparagus patch, a new rhubarb patch and a patch that I can move my horseradish into. That will leave me with some room at the ends or the bed; I think I'll put in something the bees and beneficials like. I've got a couple of Canadian Gem lilac trees I need to move; perhaps I'll put them there.

Preparing the garden soil for planting all of the above takes a fair amount of work and expense. First a soil test with the labs' recommendations as to what to add for the various crops. Then I add compost and other soil amendments as needed. Then I rototill and install ground cover where applicable. Then I dig the planting holes and mix the soil with peat moss or compost for the pants. Then I plant. Then I water and place generous amount of mulch around the plants. Then I keep the strip watered all summer and weed free. Well, I'm tired now. All that work! My point?

My point is that now I've done everything right, made this land into a patch with optimum conditions for the plants I'm going to plant, then plant the best plants I can find. And where do I find the best plants; well, right here where I work; Johnny's. There's no point in doing all this work to plant "cheap" and/or marginal plants - plant the best. It's like the old saying: you get what you pay for. I'm not spending this time and money just to plant plants; I want to harvest fruits and shoots for years to come. I want to eliminate as many weeds as I can while providing the best growing condition for the plants I have chosen.

As Farm Manager at Johnny's I should have a really nice looking and productive garden, although I am reminded of a saying, something about the cobbler's kids having worn out shoes.

Until next week, Brian.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Photos from the Quick Hoops trial

Quick Hoops Trial

Peas! Here’s a crop that you wouldn’t think you could grow in this system, but here they are. They were direct-seeded and the seeds remained dormant until spring.

Yum: This lettuce is ready to eat.

A couple things to note: Very little browning of the dormant leaves, like we saw with the Arugula; and most importantly, almost all of the varieties did well! Pretty cool.

Voila! Fresh greens in April thanks to Quick Hoops.
An artichoke peeks up through the ground after overwintering successfully under straw and a low tunnel.

Plenty of Arugula and plenty of weeds that need to be dealt with.

From L to R: Flashy Trout Back, Encore Lettuce Mix, and Spectrum Greens Mix. All direct-seeded in November. An example of a crop that was seeded after it was too cold to germinate and the seeds remained dormant until spring.
Flashy Trout Back lettuce: It's one of our prettiest lettuces. Described in our catalog as festive confetti in a salad bowl.

We held our first ‘Crop Walk’ of the year. Crop Walk is a weekly gathering of Johnny's Selected Seeds customer service reps, marketing, purchasing, operations people, and anyone else in the company who has an interest at our trial farm in Albion.

It is a time for Product Management to show off the trials and new products they are working on and also to educate on field prep techniques and pest and disease controls. This week, we featured our Quick Hoops Trial, which was a collaborative effort among product management.

Over the course of the winter, we have gained some valuable insight into the fine tuning of equipment and techniques needed to make season extension and overwintering possible in these rigid low tunnels. We also have obtained some very good data as to which varieties will work best in this application.

Learn more about Johnny's Selected Seeds Quick Hoops products and season extension, including the federal government's high tunnel pilot program.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons learned from mud season

Growers anxious to plant in the spring should be aware that the first narrow window of opportunity results when the soil defrosts completely ("unthaws" in the Maine vernacular). This occurs from the top down because of wind and warming temperatures, and from the bottom up as heat from the earth's core exerts its subtle influence. At some point, the entire soil profile is once again porous and able to facilitate drainage of rain and snowmelt. Although somewhat counter-intuitive, years with deep snow cover and little frost result in an early spring, while "open winters" with little snow and frigid temperatures drive the frost deeper into the ground and resulting in a later start.

This initial drying out has often occurred on or around Earth, Day April 22nd in central Maine. The soil may be plowed or tilled for early plantings of spinach, peas, lettuce, and frost hardy transplants. This planting period may last only a few days, before spring rains return to saturate the soil structure once again. Growers whose equipment is in disrepair, or who do not have their seeds in hand, may be forced to wait weeks for their soil to return to this workable state. With this in mind, gardening book authors universally recommend that new gardens be located on "well-drained, sandy loam".

When I first began farming, I was faced with a steep learning curve. I had no personal farming experience, nor had I grown up in a farming family.

"Back to the land" was an appropriate moniker for the first five years of my tenure in Maine, as I struggled to grow the vegetables needed by an extended family living on a hillside farm. As my vegetable growing ambitions grew, I acquired a succession of various obsolete farm tractors and related equipment.

Learning to navigate these relics over the fields proved quite a challenge, and one especially wet spring my farming neighbor and I staged an impromptu mud run.
Neither of us had the maturity, experience, or patience to wait a few more days to begin working our fields. We had bolted together our aging equipment while the last snow flurries fell, filled our greenhouses to overflowing with seedlings planted on an optimistic timetable, and agonized as deep frosts delayed the drainage of our soggy fields. When the sunny skies and warm breezes tempted us beyond endurance, we fuelled our respective mounts in the dooryard and wheeled out to the edge of the fields. I was trying to work some ground near the barn and he was attempting to plow open a field on his land just across the stream.

In the sorry spectacle that followed, plowing progressed only by fits and starts. Mostly there was a series of shrieks, moans, and hollers from the tractors as they floundered in the mud and curses accompanied by the clank of shovels as we dug out the tires and placed rocks and boards to return them to the surface.

Periodically, when shoveling failed, one of us would walk across the stream to ask the other to bring a chain and tow the second tractor out of the mire. As the morning passed, several epic rounds of towing had occurred, but precious little that resembled plowing. Finally, as I shoveled the mud off my boots to begin the walk across the bridge for yet another tow, my heart sank.

There in the distance was my neighbor wearily climbing the bank to the road to summon me. When we met at the bridge over the small stream it was confirmed that both our tractors were now sunk in the mud. Calculating the number of weeks it would require to till our small plots at the rate we were going, we were forced to admit that we were no match for mud season. Over the past three decades I have spent part of every spring preparing the earth to garden. And I have never forgot that early spring, when mud season taught me that there's a time for every purpose under heaven!
Ben Wilcox

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What's New At The Farm? 4/07/10

April, that's what's new! I think I said that last week; a day early but only because we're so anxious to get into warmer weather and into the planting season.

Signs of spring abound. This past weekend saw the first Phoebe, Osprey, painted turtle, bat and daffodils in bloom. I've heard southern spots have fiddle heads poking up! The forsythia is in full bloom and the buds on the lilacs are swelling. Lots of dandelions around and the geese are enjoying grazing on the fresh grass. It looks like spring is truly here. I saw a swallow on Monday too.

Speaking of spring, along with spring comes the ever popular mosquitoes. I've had them in my workshop for the past month or so and now they seem to be out and about. While usually not present in large numbers, they can turn an afternoon outside into something less than perfect. To control insects we must understand their life cycle.

There are three major species of mosquitoes in North America: Celex, Aedes and Anopheles. Aedes are associated with flood waters or periods of heavy rain. Humans are their preferred food; we saw them last summer with all the rain we had here. Anopheles are the Malaria mosquito; they prefer clean, fresh water. And finally the Celex mosquitoes are the ones found in standing water in places like old tires and bird baths.

Besides being a nuisance, mosquitoes carry a host of diseases including West Nile, encephalitis, malaria and dog heartworm. According to most information I have read, if you don't want to get a disease from them don't get bit by them. No kidding. Actually the chances of getting a diseases from a mosquito bite, and developing serious health issues are pretty rare. In other parts of the world it is much more common. That said, no one wants to be chewed by them when sitting out on the lawn in the evening; now that it's actually warm enough to sit out.

Our house is located right next to a farm pond and a swamp (wetland). We have a sitting area out at the south end of our pond where we spend much time in the snowless seasons. Mosquitoes are at their peak around eight in the evening for about an hour. They can drive us into the house at certain times.

I am a firm believer in having a smudge going to discourage them, whether it actually does any good or not. I am also a firm believer in not spraying pesticides all over the yard. Pesticides usually kill a broad spectrum of insects and I'd rather not kill everything. So, what to do?

There are things we can do to reduce the mosquito population that are just easy, common sense things.

  • If you have a pond like we do, stock it with some type of minnows. We have golden shiners in ours. Many small fish consider mosquito larvae (commonly called wrigglers) delicacies and make a tasty meal of them. We used to collect the wrigglers and feed them to our aquarium fish; I forget the species at this time, any fish that likes brine shrimp will normally eat wrigglers. Our shiners eat wrigglers, provide food for the larger fish in there and I can take some out for use as bait.

  • Get rid of anything that holds water, or make the water unsuitable for reproduction. For example a bird bath, don't get rid of it; the birds need it. Instead add a bubbler or a small recirculating pump so the water doesn't stand still. Or add a larger container for water over the bath that drips. This will discourage the adults from laying eggs there and also attract the birds.

  • Although birds and bats don't eat that many mosquitoes, encourage them to share your yard and garden. Natural predators include bats, birds, dragonflies, frogs and toads, and just about anything that can catch them.

  • If you have bulrushes and/or cattails growing around, leave them. They provide hiding and resting places for dragonflies and other mosquito eating insects. Put a few bird houses up and enjoy the birds.

  • And finally, if you can, add some ducks to your flock. You'd think I was a duck salesman but honestly Muscovy ducks will hunt mosquitoes both as ducklings and as adults. The young ducklings will spend their day chasing mosquitoes around and the adults will catch them as well. Besides they're fun to watch.

Until next week, enjoy the spring before the blackflies come out.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

What's New At The Farm? 4/01/10

Welcome to April!

With all the rain we've had this week I thought today would be a good time to talk about cover crops, organic matter and preventing erosion. We've had a pounding rain for two days this week, and I'm glad we got as much ground covered as we do. The very nature of how we use the land for the production of crops leads to potential erosion issues every time we have heavy rains. A "gully washer" can wreak havoc with topsoils in the middle of the summer. A thundershower often has torrential but brief downpours which also can lead to significant erosion. Sometimes dry soils will resist a heavy and fast application of water and that's when erosion can happen quickly and without warning.

So, what's the big deal about erosion? Erosion takes place in nature all by itself. Ever wonder why the rockiest soil is on the ridge tops while the deepest soils are in the valleys? The rain has washed the soil down off the hill for hundreds or thousands of years. Small soil particles move easier than large ones so the rocks are left and the soil is moved. This moving usually moves the same amount of materials that is made up new each year.

In an agricultural setting erosion speeds the loss of topsoil at an alarming rate. Topsoil is necessary for plant growth; without it you have nothing. It takes nature 100 years to deposit an inch of topsoil and that can be lost in one season or less. Agriculture disturbs the organic materials left on the surface by living, dying and rotting plant materials and exposes it to the ravages of the weather. A heavy rain is all it takes to wash the soil away. Land must be managed to achieve maximum crop yields while keeping and improving the makeup of our precious topsoil.

Crop land often removes plant roots that hold the soil in place. A crop of grass holds soil much better than a crop of carrots, but there must be middle ground somewhere. We need our crops but we need to preserve our soils to grow them; a circle indeed; one step relying on the others. So, in order to prevent losing our topsoil and preserving it for future generations, we need to develop a plan to enrich, preserve and maintain biological diversity in our soils.

Ways to prevent erosion:

  • Avoid any more tillage than is needed. A neatly rototilled garden looks neat but a garden with plant material, dead or alive, is better for the soil. No recreational rototilling; all this tilling breaks up soil structure and leads to erosion.

  • Leave no space bare. If you're not going to plant it, sow some cover crop seed that will hold and enrich the soil naturally and prevent erosion if even on such a small scale. Toss some wildflower mix on it as well.

  • If planting a cover crop is not possible, then rough up the surface of the plot to stop the flow of water. This will make the water soak into the ground and not go racing down the hill taking soil with it.

  • Plan your growing area to the contour of the land. No rows up and down the hill - ever. No planting where it's really steep unless a system to stop erosion is in place - like a bark mulch on berries.

  • Leave crop residue in place. At the end of the season, leave crop wastes (now called crop residues) in place. No need to move those vines or remove the sunflower stalks. Leave the unharvested crops where they are; it's not important to remove all crop residues. Leave organic mulches in place as well. Add some organic matter in the fall; leaves, mulch hay, vegetable trimmings and bedding from the barn. I run over the garden with an old bedspring towed behind my four wheeler to level the surface without removing any surface residue.

Simple, common sense ways to keep our soils where they should be. Don't think that because you have a small plot that erosion control isn't important; it is. Everyone who works the soil shares the responsibility to preserve it for the generations that are yet to come.

Until next week, Brian

JSS Advantage April 2010

For more information on tomatoes as noted in the June Advantage newsletter, please click here. Thank you!

Spring is officially here, and growers throughout most of North America can plant outside this month. In this issue, we'll focus on getting crops off to a strong, healthy start and doing it as efficiently as possible.

Direct seeding

Both soil temperature and air temperature affect the germination and early growth of vegetables. Your optimum planting dates have to take both into consideration, to ensure that seeds germinate quickly and evenly, and that conditions after emergence are right for that crop. In the Johnny's catalog, you'll find a graph showing minimum, optimum, and maximum soil temperatures for each vegetable. Here's some advice on how to use those graphs to your benefit.

As you look at the temperature graphs, you'll notice that the most favorable temperature for almost all vegetables is quite warm, 77-86F/25-30C. In most places, however, those soil temperatures don't occur until spring is well under way. If you waited for soil to get that warm, you would run the risk of the weather getting too hot too soon for your cool-loving crops. Also, you would be trying to plant everything in the same week. A better strategy is to plant when the soil temperature is somewhere between minimum and optimum. You can plant at the minimum temperature if the weather forecast is for continued warming. The range of temperatures between minimum and maximum gives you plenty of leeway to spread out your planting workload over several weeks in spring and make succession plantings well into summer. The chart below shows the order in which you can direct seed spring crops, based on their frost tolerance and germination temperature requirements.

Plant before frost-free date and when soil temp is at least 45F/7C:
Beets, broccoli raab, broccoli, carrots, chicory, lettuce, onions, parsnips, peas, spinach, and turnips

Plant before frost-free date and when soil temp is at least 50F/10C:
Cabbage, cauliflower, radish, Swiss chard

Plant after danger of frost and when soil temp is at least 60F/16C:
Beans and corn (treated corn seed only; for untreated seed, wait for 65F/18C

Plant after danger of frost and when soil temp is at least 70F/21C:
Cucumbers, gourds, melons, okra, pumpkins, squash, watermelons

Tracking soil temperature

Because temperature is so important to seed germination, it pays to keep track of soil temperatures in early spring. For $9.95, you can buy a soil thermometer with a pocket clip and carry it with you to get in the habit of monitoring temperatures. Here are some guidelines for using a soil thermometer:

Measure where you are going to plant because temperatures can vary across a field. Soil temperature can be affected by a number of factors including mulch or crop debris on the soil surface; orientation of the field, with south-facing fields warming fastest; and soil moisture, with dry soils warming quicker than wet soils.
  • Insert the bulb only as deep as the seeding depth, usually no more than 2".
  • Wait two or three minutes before removing the thermometer.
  • Take a reading in the morning, when soil is coldest, and another in late afternoon, when it's warmest. Average the two to get the average daily temperature.
  • When your target temperature has been achieved for three days in a row, you're good to go!
  • If soil remains too cool beyond your normal planting date, try placing row cover on hoops above the bed. It will warm the soil within a few days and the row cover will provide a beneficial environment for early growth. For extra warming, lay IRT mulch film or black biodegradable mulch film on the bed. Get the mulch taut and in contact with the soil for maximum benefit.

The seedlings that you have tended so carefully in the warm, humid greenhouse will soon be planted outside, where they will be exposed to wild temperature swings, wind, rain, and brilliant sunshine. It's a tough transition for plants, one that can set them back severely unless you take the time to harden them off.

Hardening off means introducing young plants gradually to the world outside. This process is easy when you have a few flats of plants; you can put them outside for a few hours and gradually increase the amount of time each day for a week or so. But when you're a commercial grower, with dozens or hundreds of flats, you don't have time to move plants in and out of the greenhouse twice a day. Here are some suggestions for hardening off plants on a market farm.

Most growers create a separate hardening off area apart from the greenhouse, where plants can be moved for a week before being planted outside. Ideally, the hardening off area will be cool, bright, and with some wind exposure yet also have emergency heating in case the temperature takes a dive.

An unheated hoophouse makes a good hardening off area for transplants. If the doors and sides are open during the day, the plants get acclimated to outside conditions. Closing the hoophouse at night protects them from low temperatures and deer.

A second option is a low tunnel made of hoops and row cover. It can be a temporary structure, right outside the greenhouse, with pallets for a floor to hold seedling flats. If the greenhouse has roll-up sides, the hardening off area can be built along the sidewall so that it can get heat from the greenhouse if necessary.

Some growers use their farmers market canopies to provide shelter for transplants if frost is not expected. Others have tables set up under trees or near buildings that cast some shade during the day. In both cases, it's important to have hoops or posts on which to hang row cover or poly at night for additional cold protection.

Hardening off involves more than acclimating plants to weather. The process should also help plants adjust to lower levels of fertilizer and water than they received in the greenhouse. Fertilizing can be stopped and watering reduced in the week before moving the plants outdoors to harden off. A light foliar feeding of kelp just before moving them out will help the plants deal with cold stress. Then, two or three days before planting in the field, the transplants should be fertilized with fish emulsion or other liquid nitrogen fertilizer to help them resume growth.

For more examples of how market farmers harden off transplants, see this article in Growing for Market.

When it's time to direct seed or transplant your crops, Johnny's has a wide range of planters to make your work go faster and cause less back and knee strain. There's a tool for every application, from the Earthway seeder that makes direct seeding as easy as walking, to the Hatfield transplanter, which lets you plant seedlings without bending. You have to see these planters in action to really appreciate the labor savings they afford. Go to Johnny's video library to see which planting tools will work best for your farm and crops.

While your thoughts at this time of year may be focused primarily on the delicious vegetables you're growing for market and your own table, don't forget about cover crops. Early spring is the best time to plant many crops that will benefit you in the months and years ahead. Here are some examples of ways to use cover crops.
  • Plant nitrogen-fixing legumes to increase soil fertility for a subsequent crop.
  • Plant buckwheat in an area reserved for summer vegetables or flowers to prevent weeds in the meantime.
  • Plant Johnny's Spring Green Manure Mix now then plow it in later in the season to increase organic matter and nitrogen.
  • Grow a living mulch by underseeding brassicas with New Zealand white clover.
  • Plant grains such as spring wheat, barley, and oats to harvest as food, or use some as ornamentals in bouquets and wreaths.
For a detailed description of cover crops, including valuable advice from Johnny's farm manager, download our Cover Crop Comparison chart.