NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part I
Everything you need to know--except the experience--about planting, cultivating and harvesting salad and cooking greens year round.

By Don DeVault

Editor's NOTE:

In his last two installments, Don Devault got your new greenhouse up: 21 by 48 feet of steel and glory.

Visit Part 1and Part 2 of the hoophouse story if you haven't yet.

Miss a lesson? View a complete listing of all articles in the NUTS, BOLTS & DREAMS series.












"I start my day at 5:30 or 6:00 and may easily work 12 to 14 hours a day from late May into September. And my back may ache and my hands may be rough and torn up. But in the diffused natural light of my 'office,' procedure is however I happen to do things, and the only person I have to listen to just started singing."

























"In my first season, I direct seeded most everything by hand, and to my great satisfaction it sprang up like gangbusters. Then I had to figure out what to do with it."

















































" I don’t at all mind the extra care and time to cut [red orach], as it adds such beautiful color, especially set against the pale green/yellow of the endive. That and almost nobody else has it."





















Next Time:
The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part II

  • Tomatoes,
  • basil,
  • peppers,
  • eggplant,
  • cucumbers!


Another hard day at the office: Don kneels in his "office," harvesting a fresh batch of greens.

MAY 23, 2003, Emmaus, PA: It’s finally Spring. Which means it’s raining. Farmers all over are at the mercy of Mother Nature. They’ve worn down their teeth chomping at the bit. They’re waiting for (ohpleaseohpleaseohplease) just a few clear days in a row. (And maybe a light, steady wind if it’s not too much to ask.) Farmers all over need to get their tractors into the fields to plant corn and beans and grain.

And as I kneel down amongst the onions, lettuces, spinach, arugula, mizuna, minutina, endive, red orach, tat soi, carrots, beets, turnips, parsley, basil, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, I think:


But I shouldn’t say that. Simply because I ‘ve heard that wholesale prices of conventionally-produced agricultural commodities barely cover conventional production costs doesn’t mean you can’t eek out a meager existence with subsidies and crop insurance. But maybe I shouldn’t say that either. Truth is, I really don’t know anything about large-scale conventional farming. Nor do I care to. My neighbors will forever remain a mystery to me. And I to them, I’m sure.

I’ve got a hoophouse. Three, in fact. And I can only imagine what they think of that. But at 9:00 on a rainy spring morning, with most of the rest of the local farming community twiddling their thumbs, I flick on the radio, and Led Zeppelin’s Down by the Seaside gives way to the traffic report on 467 into nearby Philly. The thought expands and echoes in my mind:


There’s no rush-hour traffic with which to contend when I start my day. Granted, I start my day at 5:30 or 6:00 and may easily work 12 to 14 hours a day from late May into September. And my back may ache and my hands may be rough and torn up. But in the diffused natural light of my “office,” procedure is however I happen to do things, and the only person I have to listen to just started singing.

The beginning farmer has an open invitation to experiment, to imagine and implement. To be instrumental. And the hoophouse is the perfect way to focus the energy of that freedom. But there also exists for the beginning farmer the very real possibility of falling flat on his can and not being able to get up again.

There are decisions to be made every day on the farm, and while the experienced farmer can seemingly divine with a bit of mystical squint-eyed rumination what is undoubtedly the right decision, the novice is sure to make a few mistakes. I was fortunate when I began farming in that I was working full-time to expand an already successful family operation, which allowed me the freedom to be a slave to making decisions that were quite possibly awful mistakes. In time, some of them paid off. Some of them did not. But I learned something new and valuable every day.

Over the years I’ve grown everything from artichokes to zucchini in the hoophouse, and now that you’ve got your very own hoophouse (you read my last three columns, didn’t you?) I encourage you to experiment on your own with whatever you want, especially if you’re one of those people who needs to learn things the hard way. I am. But, as I’ve told you before, if you’re a little less bull-headed than I, my experience may save you some pain. Assuming I can somehow de-mystify and adequately relate the nature of the foundation of my squint-eyed rumination.

Salad Greens

Salad greens are a great place for the beginner to start. They fetch a good price and they grow quickly to harvest size. For salads you want “baby” greens. To get a general idea of harvest size, just imagine you’re on a date and you’re going to have to eat the salad you’re cutting. You don’t want to look like an idiot trying to stuff a huge, unruly piece of lettuce into your mouth.

In my first season, I direct seeded most everything by hand, and to my great satisfaction it sprang up like gangbusters. Then I had to figure out what to do with it. Since that first season, experience has somewhat systematized my approach, and in this two-parter I’ll address planting, cultivation, and harvest techniques for everything I grow in my hoophouses. Washing, packing, pricing, and marketing strategies will follow sometime. That is, whenever in the next few weeks Mother Nature gives me a minute.


Lettuce makes up about 40% - 50% of my salad mix, and I sometimes sell just a plain leaf lettuce mix too. I begin the season in January, seeding Speedling flats of 'Dano' and 'Tango' lettuces every two weeks. I do this in our heated seed-starting greenhouse, but it can easily be done on a window sill, in your basement on heat mats under grow lights, or whatever system you can work out. I transplant the lettuce seedlings into the ground in the hoophouse probably a month later. I space them about 4 inches apart in beds roughly the width of a reasonably comfortable reach when squatting in the pathway. (Squatting, I should tell you, is something you’ll spend a lot of time doing in the hoophouse. I might even tell you twice.)

Once the soil warms up I’ll begin direct seeding my lettuce using an Earthway seeder. It can be done just as well by hand. I plant in rows about 4 to 6 inches apart, and I use 'Dano', 'Tango', and also Johnny’s wildfire lettuce mix. After emergence, I’ll scuffle hoe between the rows. And sometime just before the first cutting, I’ll hand-weed.

I usually cut a planting of lettuce three or four times, hand-weeding in the row as I cut. You don’t want to let your lettuce grow in too fully when planted in rows in the hoophouse, because when it does, and the plants crowd together, it will rot. If your lettuce is getting too big too soon, cut it back and compost it. It’s easier than picking through half-rotten leaves for harvest. And the trick with cutting is first to make a harvest cut of the clean, upright leaves, and then a clean-up cut so the plant will grow back evenly. And in the hoophouse it’s especially important to clear out the clean-up cuttings because left on the ground they will wilt and rot, with rot often spreading into the regrowth. I do all my harvesting early in the morning as quickly as I can, and come back in the afternoon heat to clean up.

Water wise: To avoid rotten lettuce, gaze knowingly at the heavens, thoughtully stroke your chin, do the hokey-pokey...on second thought, just try adjusting your watering schedule.

Rot, in case you’re not picking it up, can be a big problem with lettuce and the rest of the greens in the hoophouse because of the greater humidity and reduced air circulation. Roll-up sides are a great help. But you need to experiment with varieties and spacing and go with what works. You also need to carefully monitor and adjust your watering according to changes in the weather. In the summer you’ll need to taste your lettuce at cutting, because it may go bitter in the heat. To avoid this, I cover my salad houses with shade cloth in late May. Then, due to the decreased light, I must again adjust watering to avoid rot.

This is the mystical part. It’s all about maintaining the balance, and I can’t communicate the feel for it experience grants. It’ll come. Try squinting and thoughtfully stroking your chin.

For cutting my lettuce and salad greens, I should mention, I prefer scissors. Buy a couple pairs of six- or eight-inch Friskars and they’ll last you the season without the bother of constantly sharpening a knife. That, and I’m just a little too uncoordinated to feel comfortable wielding a razor-sharp knife.


These I usually cut twice from thickly seeded rows spaced about four inches apart.


I use Johnny’s 'Bianca Riccia' and seed and cut it like baby lettuce, but harvest usually only once or twice as opposed to three or four times with lettuce.


It’s not too often seen in salad mixes, as harvest takes a little more time and care. Seed it thickly in rows maybe six inches apart. It will quickly fall to downy mildew if crowded, heavily shaded or overwatered. Clip the individual lower leaves as well as those clustered at the terminal bud, leaving a bare red stem, which will “bush” out from the previous joints, like basil, to give you a second cutting. I don’t at all mind the extra care and time to cut it, as it adds such beautiful color, especially set against the pale green/yellow of the endive. That and almost nobody else has it.


It looks like a very slightly serrated blade of grass, and has a mild flavor. Seed it in rows about six inches apart. It’ll flop over and rot if it gets too big or is overwatered, and it’ll wilt and rot if allowed to dry out. I usually only use it in early spring and fall.


I use the variety 'Space' from Johnny’s almost exclusively year-round. If you seed rows fairly heavily and space them maybe six inches apart, you’ll get a more vertical growth, and from there the trick is all in the cutting. Two years ago, I leaf-cut a single large planting of spinach for two months before it finally bolted on me in the June heat. But it took forever to cut like that. Now I usually cut a single planting three times. I don’t like to see long stems on my spinach, especially in the salad mix, so the first time through, I’ll trim small handfuls of the medium-sized leaves growing off the sides of the plants, and any larger leaves from the top. The next cutting will take small handfuls of medium-sized leaves from the top, but try to be careful not to cut any of the smaller, inner leaves in the process, because in another week they’ll shoot up to be the last cutting, and you don’t want them scarred.

Spinach is always a big seller on its own, especially if leaf-cut and not too large. Depending on how much I’ve got on hand, it might also make up 10% of the salad mix.

The under-cover greens

These are generally oriental greens with a spicy or cabbage-y flavor, which need to be covered with ree-may (floating row covers) to keep the flea beetles away. They make up 30% - 40% of the mix.

Johnny’s sells a braising mix which I’ve used from the beginning. It includes red Russian kale, southern and red giant mustards, hon tsai tai, komatsuna, and tat soi. I plant it in rows about four inches apart and cut it once at a cute, baby size for the salad mix and let it go for another week to two weeks before I’ll cut it a second time to sell as a “stir-fry mix” or “cooking greens” depending on how savvy my market is.

I also plant red Russian kale and tat soi individually in rows four inches apart, and usually cut tat soi only once and red Russian kale twice.

Mizuna is another key component in the mix. It’s a mild mustard with a beautifully serrated leaf. It grows very quickly, and comes back well for maybe three cuttings. In the heat of the summer, the second cutting may be of even better quality than the first, which can be thin and wilted or burnt. If you have this problem, or if it just gets too big too fast, just cut it back and give it a week or so.


This is always a great seller on its own. It grows quickly, but also bolts quickly, especially in the heat of summer under cover. Seed thickly in rows four inches apart and harvest once.

When a planting is done, pull the plants out by the roots, compost them, prep your soil, and replant. I alternate my beds as best I can between covered and uncovered crops, so that pests don’t get any wise ideas about taking up permanent residence.

Now, all you need to work out is just how much of what to plant when to have it all come together on the exact hour of the day you need it. That’s the fun part. And you really need to figure it out for yourself. Just keep squinting and stroking your chin. At least you’ll look like you know what you’re doing.