hard day at the office: Don kneels in his
"office," harvesting a fresh batch of
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,
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 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
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
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.
BULL'S BLOOD BEET TOPS
These I usually cut twice from thickly seeded rows spaced
about four inches apart.
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.
RED ORACH (ORACLE)
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
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
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
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.