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 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 clean up.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.