Monday, October 26, 2015

Canadian Greenhouse Conference and Indoor Ag-Con

By Andrew Mefferd, Johnny’s Selected Seeds

October was a busy month for me, with two major, consecutive greenhouse conferences taking place mid-month — the Canadian Greenhouse Conference and the Indoor Ag-Con. They looked to be great events so I wanted to make sure and get to both of them — even if it made for a travel-packed schedule.
Canadian Greenhouse Conference at the Scotiabank Convention Center

First I went to beautiful Niagara Falls, Ontario, the week of October 5th, for the Canadian Greenhouse Conference. The Canadian greenhouse industry is highly advanced, so I knew there would be good information and vendors. The highlights included the many developments underway in the use of beneficial insects to control pests, with an informative discussion on how to identify pests and the best biocontrols to combat them without the use of harmful chemicals.

There was also a lot of talk about how to make greenhouses more efficient. In addition to hearing about the many ongoing developments in LED lighting and other technologies to increase energy efficiency, I sat in on a great presentation on a program by the Dutch government that is working towards having zero water and fertilizer emissions from greenhouses.

It is not a new idea that the ideal greenhouse would be one that produces no emissions whatsoever, and the technology is now catching up with the idea. In a country like Holland with a big greenhouse industry, reducing or even eliminating the amount of greenhouse emissions could have a big impact on improving the environment. As the technology comes on line to accomplish this, the Dutch government is tightening emissions standards to prompt growers to install newer, more efficient technology. It is exciting to see the technology being developed for cleaner greenhouses, because the Dutch tend to come up with a lot of the greenhouse innovations that end up being adopted worldwide.
Great looking produce and flowers

Other useful workshops included how to train and motivate workers, how to understand soil and water tests, and how to mix your own custom fertilizer solution. Overall, a very good conference that is worth attending for greenhouse growers.

The next week I went down to New York City for the first East Coast Indoor Ag-Con. This conference has been held three times in the past in Las Vegas, and is branching out into Asia with a conference in Singapore in January 2016, and is being held again in Las Vegas in April 2016.
If you look closely you can see that Johnny's was an event sponsor for Indoor Ag-Con!

This was a visionary conference, in that it focused on technological innovation leading the vanguard of protected agriculture. It provided a forum for those working on next-generation greenhouse technology to present their work and perspectives. Examples of topics that get a lot of attention include use of LED lighting, aquaponics, vertical greenhouses, aeroponics, and urban greenhouses.

I feel this conference gives us a glimpse into the future of indoor agriculture. Even if all of the innovations don’t become commonplace, chances are some of the new technologies being discussed will become standards in the future. The conference sold out, so maybe they will consider a multi-day format on the East Coast as they have in the past the West. Overall, it was a very informative and inspiring conference.
Indoor Ag-Con in NYC

Both conferences got me excited about the potential for improving protected agriculture, though they did make for a very busy October! Visit our Grower’s Library, where you can read more about attracting and putting beneficial insects to work; as well as controlled environment agriculture, including Johnny’s greenhouse trialing program, what to look for when choosing which varieties to grow under protected culture, and recent advances in protected culture crop production.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sweet Potatoes Trial • Summer Update

As you’ll recall from the closing images of our June 26th post about planting our sweet potato trial, the slips were drooping and wilted — less than healthy appearing. Sweet potatoes are a tropical plant, so we covered them with AG-19 row cover to protect them from the weather, which can still be rather cool in Maine during late spring and early summer.

Now into mid-July, the row cover has been removed, and as you can see in the photos, the vines that looked questionable after planting are alive and healthy. The foliage is a lush green, and there is little evidence of pests, and no evidence of disease. However, due to the cool summer we are having in Central Maine, the plants are not as vigorous and sprawling as they would be in warmer climates.

Sweet Potato Trial, Albion, Maine
Photo taken July 17, 2015

For those of you growing our newly-added variety, Mahon Yam™, you will notice something distinctly different about its leaves in comparison to other sweet potatoes you may have grown in the past. Standard sweet potatoes have moderately lobed palmate or cordate leaves.

Most sweet potato varieties have moderately lobed palmate
or cordate to triangular leaves.

In contrast, Mahon Yams have very deeply lobed leaves, resembling those of Japanese maples.

Deeply 7-lobed leaves of the newer organic variety, 'Mahon Yam'

No matter which leaf type your sweet potatoes have, given proper care and growing conditions you will have storage roots to enjoy at harvest time — we're looking forward to sampling the fruits of our yam trials! 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Visit to Leamington, Ontario, Canada – Greenhouse Capital of North America

By Andrew Mefferd, Johnny’s Selected Seeds

During the week of June 15 I traveled to the town of Leamington, Ontario, Canada to see the latest greenhouse varieties. I went to this particular location because it lies at the center of the largest concentration of greenhouses in North America. Leamington is farther south than any other town in Canada, since it is on a point in Lake Erie. Even before greenhouses were popular, there was a lot of field tomato production in the area, so it is Canada’s “Tomatoville.”

Here is a selfie of me with the tourist info booth in Leamington, which is a giant tomato. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open when I was there — or there would be a helpful person inside the giant tomato.
This proximity to such a large body of water gives the area a “lake effect” climate, which helps smooth out the spikes and dips in temperature, making it a good area for growing all kinds of crops. Because of the high number of growers in the area, this is where newly developed greenhouse varieties are trialed and demonstrated. For tomato nerds like myself, this is an exciting place to be because the demonstration greenhouses act as a “living catalog” where I can see new varieties growing and taste them and determine if they are something that Johnny’s customers would be interested in.

Unfortunately, because these demonstration greenhouses receive so many visitors, I was not allowed to take pictures in most of them. Biosecurity is taken very seriously, as pests or pathogens could be brought in on almost any object that has also been inside other greenhouses. Even the people have to cover up — see my photo below. Even if not taken to this extent, having some kind of plan to keep diseases out of the greenhouse is a good idea for every grower. This is especially important for growers who have field and greenhouse operations on the same farm. It is very easy for workers to bring pathogens into the greenhouse if they go straight from working on one crop in the field to working on the same crop in a greenhouse.
Luckily, I was able to take photos in some places, even if I had to put my phone in a bag.
It is always interesting to go to field days and see the new developments. Breeders are constantly working to help overcome the production problems of growers by developing new varieties that are more resistant to pests and diseases, and have better flavor. These kinds of visits also provide a great opportunity to learn and share ideas with other growers, find out what their difficulties are and how they are able to overcome them.

In this greenhouse, I was allowed to get some photos of the new varieties on display. Also, I was able to get someone else to take a picture of the type of precautions that are taken to ensure that no diseases make it into the greenhouse. There were some very nice new varieties this year, including new cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Many of the new cucumbers for greenhouse production have resistance to cucumber green mottle mosaic virus (CGMMV), a disease which is becoming more and more common in greenhouses in North America.

There were also some nice new tomato varieties on display. I am particularly excited about a very sweet and flavorful grape tomato for greenhouse production which may be available soon.

After three days in “Tomatoville,” I left town with many new growing ideas and potential new varieties in mind. It’s always great to visit and enjoy the warm hospitality of my Canadian hosts. For updates on these varieties, stay tuned to your next Johnny’s catalog to see if any of them make the cut in our trials this year and make it into the catalog.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Planting Out Sweet Potato Slips

Sweet Potatoes
Rest assured that in the days between their arrival and the day of planting, your sweet potatoes will have recuperated and will indeed look great!

- Read our prior post for simple instructions on holding slips under favorable conditions.

The basis for success with any field-grown crop is that it is well-matched to the soil type. For sweet potatoes, the ideal is a well-drained, sandy loam.

Not only that, but the soil needs to be warm as well. Here in Central Maine, we lay black plastic mulch (you can also use solar mulch) along the entire length of our bed — which also does a good job suppressing weeds. Underneath the mulch we run a line of drip tape, for irrigation later in the season.

Well-drained Soil
Ideal soil conditions for
Sweet Potato planting

Mulch is used to
suppress weeds
If you’re planning to put in a large crop of sweet potatoes, a transplanting tractor can save you considerable time. But ours was a relatively small planting this year, so we put ours in the ground by hand. Prior to planting, we rolled out a measuring tape and punctured holes in the plastic 12 inches apart, so each transplant would be equidistant from its neighbors.

We went with standard spacing this year, but there has been some research to evaluate the effects of different in-row spacing and other factors on sweet potato yield. 

If you are space-limited and concerned about yield, you may want to look into the results, or check with your local extension agency for recommendations tailored to your regional conditions.

Puncturing holes
in the plastic
Ensuring transplants are
equidistant from they're
With all of the holes marked and the field stakes placed, it’s time to begin planting. If you’ve potted up your slips to hold them over for a while, remove them from their container like you would any transplant. Then, gently pull apart the slips to separate them. Even during a relatively short holding period, they will begin to develop a more robust root system.

Remove slips from
containers carefully
A robust root system

The next step is to create a hole deep enough to accommodate each slip, as they can vary in length. To ensure consistent yield, make sure that at least two of the nodes at the base of the slip are below the soil line.

A closer look
at the nodes

If the slips have a lot of fibrous roots, you will also want to bury these all below the soil line. There are various ways to accomplish this, but we find it easiest to use a dibble. Gauge each slip’s length and fibrous roots, then drive the dibble down into the soil and rotate it to widen the hole — and you have a perfectly sized hole, as simple as that. Place one slip per hole. If you do find that some of the slips are too long and you can’t dibble a deep enough hole, you can trim a bit of excess from the bottom.

Placing one slip
per hole

Drive the dibble
down into the soil
A look
at the plants

With the slip in the hole, push the surrounding soil back in. Firm it with a thorough watering, which will also provide the plants with needed moisture. 

Push the surrounding
soil back in

Again, the plants may look a little droopy or wilted from the process. Transplanting can cause shock to all plants, especially if it is a sunny and hot day, as it was when we were planting our slips. Just keep the bed watered and give your plants a few days to establish themselves.

Often times the existing foliage on the slips will wither and die back, but new foliage will emerge. It can take up to one month before the plants really get growing here in Maine, especially if the weather is cool and cloudy.

Plants may
look a bit droopy
Transplanting may
shock the plants

Due to the unpredictable nature of northern spring weather, we added row cover to our planting. Row cover is very helpful to growers at higher latitudes, as it keeps the plants warmer while becoming established, and it discourages deer from browsing if you don’t have a fence (they love sweet potato vines).

Frequent windy weather that causes the billowing fabric to jostle the slips prompted us to use hoops under Agribon-19, but we have used it successfully without hoops in the past. The cover stays on until the plants are established, around July 4th, and then we will put in back on to extend the growing window at the end of summer.

Check back later this summer to see how the sweet potato vines have taken off!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Arrival & Preplanting Care of Sweet Potato Slips

The Slips Arrive 

Packages containing sweet potato slips were shipping at a steady rate earlier this month. When live plants are delivered, it’s always best to plant them immediately — but when life and changes in the weather intervene, that isn’t always possible. Here’s how to keep your slips healthy until you can put them in the ground.

Open the box as soon as it arrives. The rigors of shipping can leave them looking the worse for wear, with pale, wilted, or even dead leaves. But this is not ordinarily cause for alarm— sweet potato slips are stronger than they appear. There may be variation in the size of the slips and the extent of the finer, fibrous white roots growing off of them. Some slips won’t have fibrous roots, some will have many, but they will all grow if planted in the proper environment.


Holding Your Slips for a Couple of Days 

If it’s just a day or two before you’ll be planting, simply moisten a paper towel and loosely wrap it around the root ends of the slips (if the slips do not have any fibrous roots, just wrap up the cut end). Sweet potatoes are of tropical origin and do not fare well in temperatures below 60°F/16°C, so keep them at room temperature. Protect them from direct sunlight, and prop them upright — often we will stick each bundle of slips in a glass or jar if we expect to be planting them within a day or so.

Holding Sweet Potato Slips for More than a Day or Two 

We were unable to plant our trial immediately due to cool wet weather, so our slips received long-term care to keep them happy until conditions improved. If you need to hold your slips for more than a couple days, here’s what to do.

After opening the box, gently and loosely separate the roots from one another, discarding any peat moss from the roots’ storage that was shipped with the plants.


Fill a container half full with potting mix. Arrange the slips loosely in a circle around the edges of the container, then fill the rest of the container with more potting mix. If the slips have fibrous roots, try to cover them with the potting mix. Water around the slips to help settle the potting medium, and add more medium if needed. Store at room temperature, out of direct sunlight (we put them under an occupied greenhouse bench).


If you have received more than one sweet potato variety, as we had, be sure to plant the slips in separate containers and label accordingly. Keep the containers moist. In just a day or two, they will be flourishing with bright, healthy leaves.

View Our Sweet Potato Varieties »

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Update on our Asparagus Crown Planting: Part III

Our Final Asparagus Crown Planting Update 

May 2015

Here’s the last update ‘til fall for our newly planted asparagus crown bed. At the end of the last post, we mentioned that as the spears grow, you will gradually fill in your furrow with soil until its top surface is even with the surrounding soil line. We have been doing this since our last post, adding the final layer of soil to finish filling in the furrow today.

Surrounding Soil
Filling the Furrow
The process is the same as before: Gently pull soil into the furrow, while not completely covering any buds that are still emerging. Yesterday a large afternoon thunderstorm had already started to fill the furrow with surrounding soil. We used a collinear hoe to once more level out the rest of it. You might notice in the photos that some of the crowns are establishing faster than others and those spears have already grown well above the soil line. This is okay – some are just slower to snap out of their stay in cold storage than others and will catch up eventually.

Leveling Out the Furrow
Now that the soil level is where it should be, the next step is to cover the bed with mulch to suppress any weeds that might begin to grow. Keeping your asparagus bed free of weeds will not only save you a lot of labor, but support nutrient and moisture availability to the crowns. We use straw to mulch our bed, but other materials that allow water to percolate through, such as composted leaves, can also be used. Leave a couple inches of soil surface open around the line of spears down the center, of the bed, or keep the mulch layer thin in this area, especially if there are any crowns with spears that have not yet emerged above the soil line.

See photos below:

Your asparagus bed is now well set until fall — but keep an eye on it, and keep the soil moderately moist throughout the hot summer months.

In the fall, when the fronds have died back, cut them off at soil level, and be sure to remove all the debris, to eliminate potential habitat for asparagus beetles. Fall is also the time to add more compost, if needed, and to freshen up the mulch for the winter ahead.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Update on Our New Asparagus Planting: Part II

Update on Our New Asparagus Planting: Part II 

May 2015,

From our last post you’ll recall that we planted a new bed of asparagus crowns at Johnny’s Research Farm in Albion on May 4th. Prior to planting, we dug an 8”-deep trench, but following planting did not fill the trench back up to the soil line. Now that the spears have started emerging from the soil, it’s time to add another layer of soil.


This is a fairly simple process. All you need to do is use some sort of gardening tool — a rake, a stirrup hoe, a small pitchfork — and gently add soil to the furrow. We used a collinear hoe (see image below). Do not cover the spears all of the way; leave the top of the bud still showing above the soil.

Do Not Totally Cover Spears

The furrow still won’t be completely filled in at this point; you are only adding one more layer of 2–3” of soil. In another week or so, after waiting for the spears to emerge again, you will need to add more soil back into the furrow. Repeat until the amount of soil in the furrow is even with the soil line. 

Collinear Hoe
Although you’ll be eager to begin harvesting, establishing an asparagus bed requires patience. It is not until a full year after planting that the spears will be of harvestable size. Even then, your first harvest will be short. The reward for waiting, if you maintain the asparagus bed properly, is it will continue to produce well for upwards of 15 years!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Putting in a New Bed of Asparagus Crowns — Part I

By Lindsay Spigel, R&D, 
Johnny’s Selected Seeds

May 2015 

Following the late arrival of spring here in Central Maine — and hopefully the last few weeks of frosts — we were able to put in a new bed of asparagus crowns for our Research trials. Many of you have likely already received your crowns and planted them, but for those still waiting on the weather to break, now’s a great time to prepare the bed. Here’s a walk-through, with some tips for success.

How we made our bed: 

May 2015 Asparagus Trial
The first step in planting asparagus is to ensure that the site you've chosen meets all the requirements
to keep the plants healthy for many years to come. If you chose a location that is less than ideal, there are workarounds to improve the site, but in the long run it will be more work.

Choose a location that receives full sun or part shade. As you can see in the pictures, our asparagus trial is out in the open, with little shade from nearby trees. It is best to check your soil pH the fall before you plant; you’ll be able to apply any amendments at that time so it can reach the ideal pH of 7.0 for spring. Proper bed preparation in the spring is key — it is much easier to rid the area of weeds before you have planted than to fight weeds throughout the life of the asparagus bed.

After you ensure that your planting location is weed free, dig a furrow 5–8” deep. If your soil is heavy, a shallow furrow is better, to prevent the crowns from becoming waterlogged. We have well-drained soil at our Research farm, and you can see here that our furrow is about 8” deep.


Planting our crowns 

The crowns will look dry when you pull them out of the box, but that is completely normal. Because we had our crowns before we were ready to plant, we opened the box and removed the band from the bundle of crowns to inspect them. Mold that sometimes forms during shipping is easily wiped off with a damp cloth, and shouldn't affect the health of the crowns. If they appear to have dried out during shipping, sprinkle the crowns with a bit of water. After inspecting the crowns, we placed them loosely in the box, then loosely closed the box and placed it in a standard refrigerator. We checked on them every few days to ensure they remained healthy until we were ready to plant.

Asparagus Trial Spacing
When the timing is right — 3–4 weeks before the last average frost — and your furrow is dug, it’s time to plant. Our planting date this year was May 4th. Place the crowns 12” apart in the furrow. If you’re planting Purple Passion (F1), the in-row spacing should be slightly closer, 6–8” apart, to avoid overly thick spears. Splay the roots out as best you can while keeping the crowns upright time to plant.

Although the furrow is deep, at this time you will only cover the crowns with 2–3” of soil. Water the crowns until the soil is damp, and keep them moderately moist throughout the establishment period.

Cover the Crowns with 2-3" of Soil
Gradually Fill in the Furrow

Now you wait — it can take a couple to a few weeks for the crowns to become established and start growing. As spears appear, you will gradually fill in the furrow as they grow — check back in a couple of weeks to see images of how our new asparagus bed is growing!

Check Back This Friday for
An Update!