An Oasis in the Desert: Succeeding with Dry Climate Agriculture

Dryland farming at Agritopia

A cross-country road trip reveals some remarkable things about America. Across the continent the vast differences in culture are evident in the range of clothing styles, food preferences, accents, vehicles, and dwellings; in our music, art, politics, and economic stability. But as great as our cultural differences are, they are insignificant compared to (and thoroughly shaped by) the differences in our ecosystems. Here in Vermont we are famous for our sugar maple trees and cheddar, while California boasts giant sequoias, fine wines and orchards as far as the eye can see. The temperate wet summers and dry autumns of the Pacific Northwest produce the best of many seed crops, while less than a thousand miles to the south the landscape is so dry that only cacti and C4 plants survive.

The Farm at Agritopia

In the wild, that is. Tenacious farmers and gardeners of the arid southwest are coming up with new creative ways to raise food even in the driest regions of our diverse continent. This is a unique area even from a global perspective, characterized by martian-looking plateaus and buttes of red rock, high-altitude windswept mesas, and magnificent canyons carved by deep rivers that dried up generations ago. Day and nighttime temperatures can vary by as much as 60 degrees F, and at first glance one can see that farming in this environment requires an equally unique approach.

Unfortunately the water problem is getting more severe, with irrigation water becoming more expensive and less available as agriculture intensifies, and major rivers like the Colorado drying up long before reaching the ocean. Now more than ever we need to produce more food with less water. So we talked to Erich Schultz, a High Mowing customer and Head Farmer at The Farm at Agritopia® outside Phoenix, Arizona about some simple techniques and varieties contributing to the success of farmers and gardeners in the drylands.

The Farm at Agritopia®

A CSA share from the Farm at Agritopia

The Farm at Agritopia® is a 15-acre certified organic urban farm in the heart of a housing community called Agritopia® located in Gilbert, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix. The community website describes Agritopia® as “something of a modern day village set within the urban fabric of the Phoenix metro area…[it’s] about preserving urban agriculture and integrating it into the most neighborly, well-designed community possible.” The community features two restaurants that source produce from the farm and according to Erich, “Because of our climate, we can farm year round growing a wide range of row crops ranging from arugula to tomatoes, plus orchards for citrus, peaches, apricots, apples, medjool dates and olives. We grow 3 varieties of heritage wheat (White Sonora, Red Fife and Khorasan). We also raise sheep, chickens, ducks and turkeys as well as keep bees.” The farm produce is sold

Agritopia’s 24-Hour Farmstand

through their farmstand, farmers markets, a CSA, and to restaurants. The climate presents its challenges, however. According to Erich, “Our summers can be quite warm (110+) and our winters can have dramatic temperature swings (60 during the day and 15 at night).” Erich has learned to work with the climate using some key xeriscaping techniques.

Xeriscaping Basics

Gardening to minimize water usage is called xeriscaping. It is essentially a means of using traditional gardening techniques but in slightly different ways to reduce the need for irrigation.

A Plant for Every Place

The first basic principle is to match plants’ water needs to different microclimates, seasons, and soils on the property – this is an important technique used at Agritopia. According to Erich, “We grow our cool weather crops like roots and greens fall through spring, and warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, sweet potatoes, and beans in the spring through early winter. We’ve had a great carrot, kale and broccoli crop early this year and are currently having a great melon, pepper and eggplant crop. We harvest citrus winter through spring, medjool dates and olives in fall, and peaches and apples in spring.” In other words, don’t try to fight nature by growing things out of season, like planting spinach in the summer—instead, only try to grow it at times of year when it will do well (probably only in the winter in the Southwest).

Mulches and Irrigation

Low water-use drip tape at Agritopia

Another important xeriscaping technique involves using mulches and drip irrigation to reduce evaporation from the soil. The Farm at Agritopia® is fortunate in this regard—according to Erich, “Our soil has a high percentage of clay in it which is helpful for holding moisture.” Despite the retentive qualities of the soil, however, he says they “use a low water-use drip tape irrigation system which allows us to be very precise with the amount of water we apply to the crops.” If you don’t have good soil that retains water, adding lots of organic matter is a good technique to increase water retention.

The Right Plants

Lastly, choosing drought-tolerant plants that do well in the local climate will be one of your best tools for success. Erich has found that certain varieties, such as Shishito PeppersListada di Gandia Eggplant, Snowy Eggplant, Little Finger Eggplant, Sugar Baby Watermelon, Waltham Butternut Squash, Lovelock Lettuce, Magenta Lettuce, Ronde de Nice Squash, Cocozelle Zucchini, and Sivan F1 Melons tend to be successful in the hot, dry conditions. If you want to grow greens in the summer, try some of the Asian Greens like Shanghai Green Pac Choy, Vitamin Green, and Toyko Bekana, all of which are more heat-tolerant than lettuces and mustards.

The Power of Shade

Companion planted peas and carrots. Photo credit: MOFGA

If you’ve ever come into the house after gardening on a hot summer day then you know the feeling of relief brought on by shade. Plants in hot dry places experience this too! One solution that can greatly increase the variety of plants that can be grown in a dry climate in summer is to utilize shade to its fullest extent. Populating the garden with trellises, arbors, shade cloths, and tall drought-tolerant plants like cacti, palms and acacias can make gardening much more pleasant for you and the plants. Trellises and shade structures can also protect against frost and slow down drying winds, while drastically reducing the water needs of the plants beneath them. Drought-tolerant plants like bougainvillea can be trained to climb over them, creating a stunning display of color above while deepening the shade below. Below your shade structures, your planting options expand. Traditional garden plants like tomatoes, which wither under the heat of the Texan sun, can grow beautifully with a little shade. This is how tomatoes are often grown in Southern Italy, which has a similar climate and soil to the American Southwest. Planting them in self-watering containers will further increase their success, and they too can be trained to grow up a trellis. Between your tomatoes will be even shadier; here you can plant low-growing greens, radishes, and roots that would not last a day without their leafy protectors.

The Green in the Gray

Sample graywater system for irrigation. Photo credit:

Graywater, or the water that goes down the drain of your kitchen and bathroom sinks, showers, and washing machine, is a valuable and underutilized resource in areas that face chronic water shortages, and it collects a lot more quickly than water in a rain barrel. While this water can contain contaminants, it can also be used safely on garden plants with just a few simple changes—just be sure to check the local regulations about using graywater in your area. If biodegradable soaps are used and harsh chemicals like bleach are avoided in the household, graywater, especially from sinks, can be safely used on ornamental and even edible plants in the landscape. The simplest method is to remove the greasetrap under your sink and place a bucket below, using this in the garden as it fills. More sophisticated systems which divert the water directly outside can also be created easily and cheaply. Just be sure to keep the following in mind when using graywater in your garden:

  • Try to alternate between watering with fresh water and graywater to avoid buildup of sodium salts in the soil. Test the soil annually and add calcium sulfate or another sulfur product to lower the soil pH if necessary.
  • Water the soil around the plant with graywater – not the foliage. Add organic matter like compost to help break down any toxins.
  • Avoid using graywater on slopes where it will run off, especially near streams
  • Limit graywater use to 50 gallons per week per 100 square feet of garden

More Ideas and Resources

Erica’s new hugelkultur beds. Photo credit:

There are lots of individuals and non-profit groups currently developing innovative techniques for reducing the water required to garden in dry climates. A neat example is the Food is Free Project, a non-profit in Austin, Texas that helps communities build “wicking” garden beds, a type of large self-watering container that has a water reservoir and can be made using waste materials. To learn how to build your own wicking garden bed, visit the Food is Free Resources page.

Another interesting technique for reducing water usage and building soil rich in organic matter is called Hugelkultur (a German word, pronounced HOO-gul-culture). This is a method where you make a pile of waste wood (sticks, wood chips, logs, just about any wood that isn’t pressure treated), then cover the pile in soil, packing soil into all the crevices. Water in thoroughly, allowing the pile to settle for a few days before planting. You can then plant this mound with plants or seeds, and the decomposing wood inside will act like a sponge for water, soaking it up when water is available and releasing it back to plant roots in times of drought. This method has been widely used all over the world to grow food and build soil in desert-like environments. It doesn’t need to look like a huge pile of dirt, either—by building a lower, broader pile within a raised bed, then finishing off with a layer of mulch on top, it will look just like an ordinary garden bed.

To learn more about Hugelkultur, check out Margaret Roach’s article Hugelkultur Raised Garden Beds which features a gardener in East Texas and our friend Erica’s article Half Ass Hugelkultur from the Pacific Northwest.

And check out The Farm at Agritopia® online and on Facebook!

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What’s Wrong with My Garden? Part 2: Demystifying Common Diseases

If you read last week’s article you already learned plenty about dealing with common garden pests. Now let’s get into the common garden diseases and how to prevent them. Garden diseases can be difficult to diagnose—many of them have similar symptoms. They may have different treatments that are appropriate at different times in the disease lifecycles. And of course, you need to know when to try to save your plants and when it’s best to pull them out and minimize risk to the rest of your garden. We’ll cover all that and more in this simple guide to preventing, identifying, and managing garden diseases.

Prevention Basics

There are basically three primary vectors for plant diseases: bugs, moisture, and poor rotation.

Pests: Infestations of garden pests easily and quickly distribute spores from fungal diseases from sick plants to healthy ones. So staying on top of pest populations in the garden will greatly improve the health of your garden over the long term.

Pruning tomatoes photo:

Moisture: The second vector can be even trickier to control—if humidity is high, drainage is poor, airflow around plants is limited, or you’re dealing with monsoon conditions, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up with some diseased plants. However, even after planting there’s still plenty you can do to help keep your plants healthy, like pruning.

Rotation: If you plant members of the same plant family in the same spot over and over again, you’re asking for trouble by providing a constant food supply for diseases. One of the best methods for discouraging diseases from taking up residence is to rotate your crops on a 3-year cycle. If you have no choice but to plant things in the same place, then you may want to read up on companion planting, which makes it harder for disease to spread in the garden.


One more thing – I can’t say enough about sanitation. It’s hard to try to do and even harder to actually do, but it’s really important. All you need to do is follow some simple rules. 1) Never touch a sick plant and then a healthy plant without washing your hands in between. This goes for pruners too – 2) Never prune a sick plant and then a healthy plant without sterilizing your pruners with alcohol. Keep a small container with you that you can quickly dip them in between plants. 3) Never put diseased plant tissue into the compost. Unless your compost pile gets really, really hot, you’re just risking inoculating all your plants when you spread the compost. Bag diseased tissue and throw in the trash or burn it right away.

The Cucurbits: Winter and summer squashes, zucchinis, cucumbers, and melons.

Photo: M. Grabowski, University of Minnesota

Powdery Mildew (PM) is a very common disease for this family and is also commonly found on garden phlox, lilac, bee balm, and many other plants. PM looks just like it sounds – powdery, as though the leaves have been dusted with flour. It is a fungus and tends to occur in warm, humid, shaded conditions and where pests are present. PM rarely kills a plant, though it can definitely reduce yields and result in premature fruit ripening. To prevent PM in the first place, choose resistant varieties, stake, tie, or trellis plants to ensure good air circulation, and never touch plants when they’re wet. Once you spot the disease, you can try either of these two homemade solutions: Mix 1 teaspoon baking soda with 1 drop of dish soap and 1 quart of water and spray on plants to raise the pH of leaf surfaces, discouraging diseases. You can also mix 1 part cow’s milk with 9 parts water and use this as a foliar spray after each rain. Severely affected leaves should be pruned off, bagged, and thrown away. A counter-intuitive but effective solution is to use a strong jet of water to knock the spores off leaf surfaces—if it looks like you’re starting to lose the battle, try this method on a sunny day to slow its progress. Sulfur, neem oil, jojoba oil, and biological fungicides may also be used in severe cases.

Photo: Clemson University,

Angular Leaf Spot is caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas and generally occurs in periods of wet weather. Again, it looks how it sounds – like spots that turn brown, then transparent, then disintegrate and fall out of the leaf, forming a rectangular hole. On squashes and watermelon it tends to look more variable in size and is surrounded by a yellow halo. Eventually it will infect fruit with small, circular lesions. To prevent the disease, avoid overhead watering and handling plants when wet, and rotate crops. Always clean up diseased crop residues by plowing under, bagging and throwing away, or burning immediately after harvest. Once the disease has been spotted, you can try the baking soda spray above. Like PM, Angular Leaf Spot does not usually kill plants, and they will generally outgrow it if conditions dry out.

Photo: Michigan State University

Downy Mildew (DM) is like PM and most other diseases in that it prefers moist conditions. It has a strong preference for cucumber plants, especially late in the season. It starts as yellow spots on the leaves, which look gray or purple and fuzzy on the undersides, and progresses rapidly to form angular lesions followed by brown, dry, curled leaves. It needs living tissue to survive, but it can be blown into northern areas by summer storms. Prevent the disease by maintaining good air circulation and never handling wet plants. Resistant varieties are few since the disease adapted and overcame previous genetic resistance. When it appears, quickly dispose of affected plants to avoid transmitting the disease to healthy ones, or try the baking powder spray.

Photo: University of Missouri Extension

Bacterial Wilt is a common disease caused by the bacterium Erwinia tracheiphila transmitted by cucumber beetles. If you see them, keep an eye out for wilt—first one leaf or part of one will wilt suddenly, starting where there is significant cucumber beetle damage, then the disease will spread outward until the whole plant wilts (unlike the wilt caused by squash vine borer, which will only affect the chosen vine. Before you do anything else, check around the base of the plant for small holes in the vines and sawdustlike droppings caused by vine borers). Bacterial wilt mainly affects pumpkins and squash, and there’s a test you can do to find out if you have it: Cut a wilting stem. Push the two cut ends together, then slowly pull apart. If the two ends are connected by a “string” of ooze, you probably have it. The disease should be prevented by choosing resistant varieties and excluding the beetles—keeping plants covered with row cover until they flower and spraying with a kaolin clay product. You can also use Baby Blue Hubbard Squash as a trap crop. It is very attractive to the beetles, the seedlings are vigorous and it is tolerant of bacterial wilt. Once the beetles have fully colonized the trap crop, bag and destroy the plants in the early morning when the beetles are sluggish.

The Nightshades: tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, and husk cherries

Photo: NC Cooperative Extension

Early Blight, or Alternaria is a severe fungus that affects tomatoes and potatoes. It likes warm, moist conditions and appears as one or two brown 1/4″-½” spots per leaf on older (lower) leaves that enlarge, developing tan centers with fine concentric rings similar in appearance to tree growth rings, and a yellow halo around the spot. Eventually the spots will grow together, causing leaves to turn brown and dry. Dark, sunken spots will develop on tomato stems, fruits, and potato tubers. To prevent the disease, maintain good air circulation by keeping tomatoes pruned and begin spraying baking soda solution or fermented compost tea two weeks before early blight normally appears. Remove and dispose of leaves in the trash as soon as the spots appear and spray with compost tea or baking soda solution after each rain. In severe cases, copper- or sulfur-based fungicides can be used. Carefully dispose of all infected plant material at the end of the season.

Photo: Dr. Steve Johnson, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Late Blight has in the last few years become one of the most common and serious diseases of tomato and potato in the northeast. It is caused by Phytophthora fungi, especially likes cool wet weather, and causes distinctive irregular “water soaked” gray to purple spots on the older (lower) leaves. The spots enlarge and have a white downy texture on the leaf underside, and cause dark blotches on potato tubers that cause them to rapidly liquefy in storage (this is the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine). One trick to avoid the disease altogether is to plant a very early crop and a very late crop of tomatoes in a hoophouse, as vigorous young plants can better stave off the disease than mature ones. Infection can be slowed or prevented altogether in dry weather by keeping plants pruned and spraying foliage with fermented compost tea, which creates a physical barrier of beneficial microorganisms that outcompete the fungi. In wet weather, however, the disease will spread and rapidly cause rotting of the fruit and foliage. In dry weather it may be possible to slow the disease using copper-based fungicide sprays, but in most cases you will want to immediately pull up and destroy plants infected with the disease to prevent it from spreading to other tomato or potato plants. Always dispose of infected plant material quickly and properly. Choose varieties with resistance such as Matt’s Wild Cherry, Wapsipinicon Peach, Juliet, and Iron Lady F1 tomatoes, and Yukon Gem potatoes.

Septoria Leaf Spot is a very common disease of tomato that is usually not deadly.

Septoria Photo: William M. Brown Jr.,

The symptoms are numerous tiny brown spots on the lower leaves. The spots have no yellow halo, and do not cause stem or fruit damage. Simply prune off the infected foliage, disinfecting pruners when moving from plant to plant as you should always do when pruning.

Blossom Drop occurs in tomatoes in cool rainy weather as well as very dry conditions. Mature flowers simply fall off the plant and fruit (especially large fruit) fails to develop. This is usually caused by a magnesium deficiency and occasionally by a bacterial or fungal infection. Foliar spray with Epsom salts. Fruit set can be encouraged by gently shaking or tapping the plant on a sunny day.

Blossom End Rot Photo: University of Illinois Extension

Blossom End Rot looks like a water-soaked spot close to the blossom end of tomato fruits when they are about 1/3 developed. The spot enlarges, turning brown and leathery. It is caused by calcium deficiency which can occur through uneven watering. Use mulch and water regularly to keep soil evenly moist.

Scab in potatoes results in dry, corky spots on tubers and generally occurs where soils are dry and/or alkaline. To avoid scab, keep soil pH low and mulch to maintain even moisture in the soil.

The Brassicas: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and kale, as well as more distant relatives like radishes and mustards. Brassicas tend to be more disease resistant than cucurbits or nightshades, since they have thick waxy leaves that provide good protection from foliar disease. There are a few serious diseases that can affect them, however.

Black Rot Photo: Chris Smart, Cornell University.

Black Rot causes leaves to yellow from the bottom of the plant upward, and causes distinctive V-shaped yellow lesions on the leaf margins. The disease can be prevented through crop rotation and good airflow, or by spraying a copper-based, sulfur-based, or biological fungicide.

Fusarium Yellows causes lower, then upper leaves to yellow and wilt, and causes broccoli heads to be stunted and bitter. Pull up and destroy plants with fusarium to prevent spread of the disease.

Club Root Photo: Jack Kelly Clark, University of California Statewide IPM

Club Root is a common fungus affecting brassicas. The symptoms are weakened, yellowed plants, leaves wilting on hot days, and older leaves yellowing and drooping. The disease can survive for many years in the soil. Upon inspection roots will be swollen and distorted. Pull up and destroy plants to prevent spread of infection. Choose resistant varieties and maintain a soil pH around 6.8.


Damping Off is caused by a wide variety of soil fungi. Usually seedlings rot at the soil line and fall over. Be sure to wait until conditions are warm enough before planting, provide even watering and good airflow. Drenching soil with Trichoderma harzianumbefore planting may prevent the disease.

Stewart’s Wilt Photo: OSU Extension

Stewart’s Wilt is transmitted by overwintering flea beetles and causes leaves of corn plants to develop streaking and wavy edges. Broken leaves will ooze bacterial slime, and plants will become stunted or die. Plant resistant varieties, combat flea beetles, and destroy infected plants.

A Note on Basil Downy Mildew

    Downy Mildew in basil has become a very serious problem in recent years, particularly wet years. The spores can overwinter, especially in protected spaces like greenhouses. The disease starts as a lightening of the leaves before the leaves develop

Basil Downy Mildew Photo: Cornell Horticulture

transparent or brown patches. Stems will then turn brown around the soil line – once you see this the plant will usually be dead in a matter of days. Keep an eye out for light, wrinkled, or transparent-looking leaves. Biological fungicides such as oxidate and actinovate, if used early and often, can prevent the disease. Destroy plants that have woody or brown stems and those that have wilted. Provide full sun, good air circulation, even watering, and choose resistant varieties as they become available.

To learn more about garden diseases in your area, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service.

And check out our previous articles on managing diseases:

Disease Prevention in High Tunnel Production

Optimizing Your Backpack Sprayer

Downy Mildew Got You Down?

Pest, Disease, and Weed Resources in the Information Age

Visual Vegetable Disease Diagnostic Resource

Blossom Drop on Tomatoes

Late Blight – Attack of the Killer Plant Disease

Posted in Beginner Gardeners' Guide, Growing Tips, Plant Diseases | 9 Comments

What’s Wrong with My Garden? Part 1: How to Manage Common Insect Pests

Nearly everyone who’s gardened for a season or two has experienced that moment of shock when, upon entering the garden, one first lays eyes on a squadron of cucumber beetles happily chomping away on the squash plants. After the shock of seeing the carefully-tended plants in tatters, one moves on to the next phase of garden grief: denial. How could these creatures just lay claim to what is clearly yours? How could they? Finally denial gives way to acceptance and infuriation – with a smattering of bitter hatred – before settling on a deep need to fight back. So, to aid you in your battles with beetles, bugs, borers and slugs, I’ve put together a primer on pests and how to handle them. All is not lost! With all these tools to hand, you might even wind up missing your garden marauders (but I doubt it).

Organic Pest Control Basics

Personally I’m in favor of using simple tricks and homemade remedies when possible for garden problems. Certainly these aren’t appropriate in every instance, and may not be practical on a commercial farm. But a lot can be accomplished with soapy water, your hands, and a few good homemade and store-bought OMRI-listed formulations, without spending a fortune or using persistent chemicals on your hard-won produce.

Another important thing to consider is that plant pests are often vectors for diseases, especially fungal diseases—they walk on one plant that has a disease, then fly over to a healthy plant, where (like muddy dogs on a white carpet) they track spores all over, inoculating the surfaces they’re munching on. So by taking the time to stay on top of pest populations, you’re also helping prevent serious diseases from gaining a foothold in the garden (where they can remain for years to come).

The last key thing to keep in mind is that garden pests are people too. Ok, so they’re not actually people, but they are members (like us) of a vast, interconnected web we call the ecosystem. These creatures aren’t bad in their own right, they’re just bad when they’re out of balance and too many of them multiply in one place at one time. Often that imbalance is a response to monoculture (huge plantings of one crop). In balance, they provide nutritious food for birds and help keep other species in check. When attempts are made to eradicate pests altogether, cascades of negative impacts become evident on farms as well as on the ecosystem as a whole. By educating ourselves about pest life cycles and practicing good holistic management of our gardens through crop rotation, supporting beneficials, and interplanting or companion planting, we can avoid pest population explosions in the first place. Let’s learn to live together, shall we?

The Brassicas

This family includes the siblings broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and kale, as well as more distant cousins like radishes and mustards. I like to discourage brassica pests by interplanting—the smell and mix of species confuses the pests.  I sow aromatic dill or cilantro thickly around the plants, where it eventually gets shaded by the brassicas, making it last longer before bolting. I also plant tall sun-lovers like sunflowers between them, which in turn prevents the brassicas from bolting in late summer heat. In this way pests are discouraged by diversity, weeds are shaded out, and I get three crops in the space of one. There are two main pests that love the brassica family and usually hang around in the springtime: flea beetles and cabbage worms.

Photo: Jeff Hahn, UMN Extension

-          Flea Beetles are tiny (like, pinhead-sized) shiny black beetles that will jump like fleas the moment you get close.  They chew miniscule round holes, eventually turning leaves to lace, and especially prefer radishes, arugula, mustards, and broccoli raab. The simplest method for dealing with flea beetles and many other pests which are too small and fast to remove by hand, is exclusion – the same day you plant, cover your beds with row covers and make sure all edges are tucked in (covered with soil). Leave the row cover on as long as possible, as smaller plants are much more vulnerable to flea beetles. If you already have flea beetles in your soil, the row cover won’t help much. Try planting an early trap crop of broccoli raab well away from your covered brassicas – the flea beetles would much rather go for the low-hanging fruit. As soon as the trap crop is infested, cover the plants with plastic bags, pull them out of the ground, seal tightly, and throw away. Garlic or kaolin clay sprays can also be used to repel the beetles, and sprays using Beauveria bassianaor or spinosad can be used in severe cases.

Photo: UMN Extension

-          Cabbage Worm (aka cabbage moth or cabbage looper) is a very common and insatiable pest on broccoli, cabbage, and kale. The worms start their lives as pretty white moths that will flutter unassumingly around your brassicas. Beware! The moths will then lay eggs that will grow into dusty green caterpillars precisely the same color as the ribs of cabbage leaves – and that is where they like to hang out. Check the tops and undersides of your brassica leaves, especially if you see any large holes in the leaves, and pick off and squish any worms that you find. I like to use the leaf itself to squish the worms and any eggs I find, as I think this sends a strong message to any other cabbage loopers that might try their luck. Keep the plants covered with row cover after planting to exclude the moths, and spray plants with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or spinosad for serious infestations.

-          Cabbage Maggot is a little less common but more serious – ¼” gray flies lay white, tapering maggots that tunnel into cabbage family roots, killing the plants directly or by introducing diseases. Use floating row covers when the crop is planted, apply parasitic nematodes, and try mounding red pepper or wood ash around the stems. For severe cases, only plant brassicas as a fall crop to discourage early generations.

The Cucurbits

This family includes winter and summer squashes, zucchinis, cucumbers, and melons. Dipping transplants in a kaolin clay solution before planting really helps discourage cucumber beetles and squash bugs (even if it makes your plants look like they have powdery mildew!)

Photo: Jeff Hahn, UMN Extension

-          Squash Bugs are large, ½-3/4” long, shield-shaped brown bugs. They are pretty slow, so quite easy to pick off, but are smelly when squished. I bring a folded piece of cardboard out to the garden and squish them in that (yes, it’s still gross). You can also spray them and other hard-shelled insects with insecticidal soap, which causes paralysis and death. Get creative with mechanical control – some people shake them off the plants onto plastic in the morning when they’re still sluggish, or even vacuum them up before dumping them in soapy water to kill them. I’ve tried to get chickens to eat them, but no luck – even they seem to be intimidated by their significant size and smell. Always check under the leaves for clusters of metallic brownish eggs, and squish any that you find.

Photo: Jeff Hanh, UMN

-          Cucumber Beetles are about ¼-½” long and yellow with black spots or stripes. You can shake them off or vacuum them in the morning, but the rest of the time they’re too fast to hand-pick effectively. Re-applying kaolin clay solution to the top and bottom of the leaves every few weeks helps a lot, and try to keep the plants covered with row cover from planting until they start to flower (at which point they need access to bees for pollination). Always check under the leaves and around the base of the plant for their orange eggs, and squish away. For severe infestations, you can spray the beetles with insecticidal soap or a product containing pyrethrins (compounds made from chrysanthemum flowers). Use pyrethrin products sparingly, avoid ones containing the synergist compound piperonyl butoxide, and only apply in the evening or early morning as they are also toxic to bees and other pollinators. You can also try using sticky traps and/or planting Baby Blue Hubbard Squash as a trap crop. It is very attractive to the beetles, the seedlings are vigorous and it is tolerant of bacterial wilt, the most common disease they transmit.

Photo: Jeff Hanh, UMN

-          Squash Vine Borers are 1” long white larvae, but are hard to see because they bore into the hollow squash vines themselves and then eat them from the inside out. The damage from them, however, is obvious – a whole section of the plant will suddenly wilt while the rest of it looks fine. Follow the wilted section back to where it connects to the main stem, and you will probably see what looks like a tiny pile of sawdust where the borer has chewed its way into the vine. Now here’s the fun part where you get to play ‘Operation’ – take a razor blade and cut a slit lengthwise along the stem starting where you see the sawdust-like droppings. Keep going until you find the larval culprit and remove it. Then bury the slit stems with soil to help them recover and stimulate root formation.

The Nightshades

This glamorous family group includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, and husk cherries. There are not too many pests of this family because the plants in it produce alkaloids that may be toxic or bad-tasting to most bugs…with a few exceptions, of course.

Photo: Jeff Hahn, UMN

-          Colorado Potato Beetle is by far the most common pest in this family. They start as bright orange eggs on the underside of potato leaves, then grow into gross shiny reddish larvae before finally becoming boxy black and orange striped beetles. They are voracious eaters starting in the larval stage and can defoliate potato plants very quickly. They are also now resistant to many insecticides and can fly long distances, so crop rotation may not make much difference. So what can you do? Timing is key with these buggers – they are most vulnerable in the young larval stage. Crush any eggs you find, and handpick larvae in the early morning before dropping into a bucket of soapy water. For serious infestations, you can spray the larvae and beetles early in the morning with Bt, neem oil or spinosad. (Spinosad is an aerobic fermentation product of the soil bacterium, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, and should be sprayed every few days when the larvae are hatching.) Lady bugs will also prey upon the eggs, so purchasing some and releasing them in the garden at night may help in extreme cases.

Photo: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

-          Tomato Hornworms are giant (finger-sized) green caterpillars that are surprisingly good at staying camouflaged among tomato foliage. If you start seeing leaf damage, look for these guys – you can also trap them by planting dill, their favorite food, nearby. Simply hand-pick them and drown in soapy water, or spray Bt for serious infestations. If you see ones with what look like rice grains on their backs, leave them where they are! These caterpillars have been parasitized by beneficial wasps that will keep hornworm populations down in your garden.


There are many pests that will try to beat us to the sweet, starchy kernels of growing ears of corn. Raccoons in particular use a funny trick of climbing up the stalks until their weight pulls them over, then picking the ears off from the ground. The insect pests are even more clever and need to be stopped early to prevent destruction of the crop.

Earworm Photo: University of Kentucky Dept of Entomology

-          Corn Earworms start as moths that lay eggs on corn silks, from which point the yellow-headed larvae can easily crawl down into the ear, where they feed on the developing tips.  To prevent problems, use a spray bottle to apply a mixture of vegetable oil, Bt, water, and a few drops of dish soap to the tops of the ears just after the silks emerge. Corn earworms are cannibalistic, so you will generally only find one per ear.

-          European Corn Borers are 1” long tan worms that feed on foliage and ears. They can be managed if sprayed early (before boring into ears) with Bt or spinosad.

Flowers and More

Photo: Colorado State University Extension

-          Japanese Beetles are generalist iridescent bronze beetles that will completely defoliate everything from apples to zinnias. You can vacuum or shake them off early in the morning and dump into soapy water, place commercially available Japanese beetle traps around your property, or spray them with insecticidal soap.

-          Aphids are very common garden pests on everything from flowers to tomatoes. Look for ants on the plants, as ants actually “farm” these tiny green or red bugs like cows, eating the sweet sap they produce from your garden plants. The best way to deal with infestations is to

Aphid Photo: David Cappaert, Michigan State University,

spray a strong jet of water to knock them off. If need be, you can spray them with insecticidal soap. Lady bugs eat aphids, so purchasing some and releasing them in the garden at night may help as well.

-          Slugs and Snails have lots of mythology around them involving stale beer and spent yeast. I’ve only found these methods attract more, and don’t kill very many. Handpick as many as you can, and use a board laid down in the garden overnight to attract them to one spot where you can scoop them into a bucket of soapy water in the morning. You can also purchase diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it around your plants – it cuts them when they try to cross it and will keep them away as long as it is visible on the soil surface.

For more information about pests in your area, call or visit your local Cooperative Extension Service website.

You can also check out some of our other great articles on pest control:

Optimizing Your Backpack Sprayer

The Unique Challenge of Colorado Potato Beetles

Bloat Nematodes and You

Pest, Disease, and Weed Resources in the Information Age

Organic Control Measures for Striped Cucumber Beetles

Controlling Japanese Beetles in the Home Garden

Posted in Beginner Gardeners' Guide, Growing Tips, Plant Pests, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Growing Wonder: Spending Time with Kids in the Garden

“All knowledge is rooted in wonder, and what better place to cultivate wonder than in our own gardens?” ~Sharon Lovejoy

I gave birth at the end of July, bringing our baby boy into the world the same summer that we started the farm.  Some folks thought it bad timing—a baby in the middle of our first season—but we knew otherwise and looked forward to the bountiful fresh food that would be bursting from the garden ready to nourish me and in turn our new babe, and the ease of having a newborn in the warmth of the summer rather than the cold of winter.  Edge declared that Waylon was our best crop of the season, and as I re-emerged into the world from our little nest at home, I felt such excitement at showing Waylon the garden and livestock and rediscovering the farm through an infant’s eyes.

A Slow Beginning

As I slowly eased back into farm work, I’d set up a little shade tent and blanket and lay Waylon down at the edge of the garden as I thinned carrots and harvested calendula.  Edge would wrap him up in the moby wrap and take Waylon to do the animal chores, Papa and son delivering water to the pigs, sheep, and chickens, coming back with a basketful of eggs.  Though we moved slower and stopped more often to tend to Waylon’s needs, we could do much of our work with him nestled against us in a carrier or napping in the shade next to us.

Kids on the Farm

Edge and I met working on a non-profit educational farm in Ester, Alaska.  At Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, we learned many ways to include kids in the garden and encourage their natural tendencies toward creativity and wonder.  During my season there, I was constantly amazed at the creations and imaginations of the farmers’ daughters, and saw first-hand the way gardens can serve as playgrounds and classrooms all at once, invoking a sense of wonder in kids of all ages.  As Waylon grows, I look forward to sharing the farm with him as Tom and Susan share Calypso with their girls.

Let Go and Have Fun

When spending time in the garden or on the farm with kids, the most important thing is to have fun. Don’t put too many rules on them, but instead relax and be open to where their own interests pull them.  If you run a production farm and need to have order, then make a separate kids garden and let them design it: make beds in the shape of things like animals and plants or the sun, moon and stars.  What little kid wouldn’t want a garden shaped like a dinosaur or an octopus, a sunflower or a pumpkin?  Theme gardens are also a great way to get kids into the garden: make a pizza garden and grow garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers and other favorite pizza toppings; grow the rainbow, with vegetables and flowers of all colors; grow your own fort with runner beans, peas, and sunflowers creating walls as they grow up; or try a pollinator garden to feed the bees and butterflies.

There are endless games to play in the garden, too.  Invite friends over for a scavenger hunt or taste test.  Have garden adventure days and go looking for bugs you’ve never seen before, visit the garden in the moonlight and search for fairies and gnomes, visit it in the early morning and discover dew droplets on brassica leaves.  Follow your child’s lead and move like a plant: dig deep like roots into the soil, be flexible like stems in the wind, and be open like sunflower heads stretching to the sky.

More Food for Thought…

Here are some great books on gardening and discovering the natural world with kids:

Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots, by Sharon Lovejoy

Shelburne Farm’s Project Seasons, by Deborah Parella

Cultivating Joy and Wonder—Shelburne Farms Project Seasons for Early Learners

High Mowing founder Tom Stearns also shared about gardening with his daughters last year. You can read his wonderful article here: Eat More Dirt: Raising Kids in the Garden

Posted in Farmer Authors, Kids and Gardening | Tagged | 1 Comment

Brassicas Rule! A Fall Planting Guide

Giveaway! One lucky commenter will win an Organic Winter Garden Seed Collection from High Mowing Organic Seeds. These 5 cold-hardy varieties can be planted for fall harvest and will even overwinter in mild climates. To enter, leave a comment on this blog post telling us what you plan on planting for your fall harvest! Contest ends midnight, 7/4/14. Winner will be chosen at random, and will be notified by e-mail. Winner will have 48 hours to respond. This contest is in no way associated with Facebook.

Listen… do you hear that? It’s your kale talking. It has really been loving the extra attention that you’ve been giving it, and as a result, it’s inviting you into the garden to take a few leaves. It’s OK, it’s happy to give them up. Just be sure to share some love with your broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. And don’t forget the collards…they’ll get jealous.

Brassicas Unlimited

One of the bigger vegetable groups that I grow (outside of potatoes and their kin) is the Brassica family. They have lots of players, and many (like kale) can be grown at almost any time of year on a farm or in the garden. On my farm, we start by planting radishes (from seed) and kales (from transplants) in early spring. Then we throw some Asian greens (Tokyo Bekana is my new fave) into the mix later in the spring. Finally we move to the cabbages, broccolis and cauliflowers (all grown from transplants) for the fall.

Part of our strategy is a function of real estate; we are able to plant every available bed to cold-hardy crops like radishes and kale very early in the season. Then we have to wait for a few successions of these and other crops to finish out before we plant brassicas again. For this reason, the broccoli and cauliflower that I plant is all geared towards fall production. One of the advantages of this is that fall really is the golden season for lots of these crops. Cooler days and nights are perfect for forming beautiful domed heads of broccoli, jaw-droppingly pretty cauliflower, and tight, dense heads of cabbage. Exciting to think about all those pristine vegetables, isn’t it?

Starting Brassicas for Fall Production

In more Northern regions like ours, now is the time to be seeding these fall players for transplant in a few weeks. On our farm, we always follow our early peas with our fall crops. The peas are usually done at just the right time to till in and plant brassicas, and the fall crops get an extra boost of fertility from the plowed-down pea greens. I have been growing Belstar F1 broccoli for years now, and it loves this schedule, and makes crowns that make me feel like a real farmer. It will be forming heads late enough that I don’t see a lot of side shoot production, which is why I plant a few successions. The harvest window for Belstar is about 10-15 days, so if you stagger your plantings by two weeks, you should have a continuous supply of broccoli through the fall months.

The Fall Advantage

Most of the major pests that go after these plants in the spring will have cycled out for the fall planting. In our spring plantings, we don’t put any brassicas out without immediately covering them with remay. Our two big spring pests, flea beetles and cabbage worm, can’t do their damage if they can’t get to the plants. Flea beetles aren’t generally a problem for us from midsummer on, and cabbage worm usually does its worst in the spring, and typically won’t bother us later in the season. Not having to keep the late-season plantings covered allows us to keep them well-weeded and clean. We weed a few times and then they have enough leaf cover to crowd out any weeds trying to take hold.

We often side dress our kales and Brussels sprouts with compost later in the summer. They have been working hard since spring, and need to carry on through late fall, so they really benefit from the extra food. Putting some extra time and inputs into these full-season crops can yield a big payoff. As a group, brassicas are super hardy, and can take some pretty cold temperatures without losing eating quality. A few years ago I had a broccoli crop that was moving really slowly in the waning days of autumn, but I let them grow into late November. I ended up covering some of them with row cover, and one night they got down to 22 degrees under the Remay. When they thawed out, however, they were absolutely beautiful, and I sold every crown at a late season market. They were also delicious, having gotten sweeter from the cold temperatures.

Other Crops – Roots

So now you’re probably wondering what other crops we’re growing in the fall and how we do it. You can direct-sow fall carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips and rutabagas through the end of July for harvest into late fall (or even overwintering if your winters are mild enough). The trick here is that these crops like to germinate in cool soil. Try using cardboard or shade cloth to cover the soil for 3-4 days before seeding carrots and beets – this will shade the soil, cooling it and helping to retain moisture. If you live in a very hot, dry place, plant your seeds in a little trench where water will collect, water in well, then re-cover them with cardboard or shade cloth. Check them every day and only remove the covering once they’ve germinated.

If possible, plan to irrigate or sow seeds just before a period of rainy weather – this will also help cool the soil and improve germination rates of midsummer plantings. If you grew spring crops in these beds then you will want to rotate through different plant families – for example, if you grew spring mustards in a particular bed, try to grow fall carrots or beets there as opposed to broccoli or cabbage. Ideally brassicas should only be planted in the same spot once every three years, however this may not always be possible. Rotating your crops will help avoid a buildup of pests or diseases particular to one plant family, and will also help balance the nutrients beings used up. If you can, amend the bed with compost if you grew spring crops in it – this will help restore any nutrients that have been depleted.

Greens & More

Later in the season, from mid-August to September, you can plant more short-season, cool weather crops like lettuces, spinach, mustard greens, Asian greens, arugula, scallions, and radishes. The same principles used for carrots and beets (above) should be used for these crops. They really like cool conditions, and will be a lot happier going into soil that has been cooled off if it is still very hot in your area at that time of year. Have hoops made of galvanized metal wire and row covers at the ready for when frost threatens. Some of these crops – like radishes and scallions—are very cold-hardy and can withstand a light frost; however most will benefit from some protection.

More Resources

Here are some more resources for planning your fall harvest. For a general overview of how late you can plant various crops depending on your first frost date, check out this helpful succession planting chart published by the Farmer’s Almanac.

To determine the first frost date in your area, just type your location into the Farmer’s Almanac frost date calculator.

For more regional growing information, check out these guides published by Ag Extension.

And take a look at our many previous articles on fall and winter growing:

Giveaway! One lucky commenter will win an Organic Winter Garden Seed Collection from High Mowing Organic Seeds. These 5 cold-hardy varieties can be planted for fall harvest and will even overwinter in mild climates. To enter, leave a comment on this blog post telling us what you plan on planting for your fall harvest! Contest ends midnight, 7/4/13. Winner will be chosen by random, and will be notified by e-mail. Winner will have 48 hours to respond. This contest is in no way associated with Facebook.

Posted in Articles by Farmer Paul Betz, Winter Growing | 162 Comments

Micro-Farm Success: Learning from the Market Gardener

When my husband Edge and I started our farm, a friend remarked, “now all you need is a tractor and you’ll be real farmers.”  What he didn’t realize is that we’ve never planned on buying a tractor to grow vegetables. We’ve always been more comfortable on the human-power scale, and though we did add a two wheel walk-behind tractor to the fields this year, we intend to keep our (bare) feet on the ground. As new farmers, this approach makes starting our own farm feel more doable, with fewer capital investment costs. We’ve been working on farms for the last eight years, but we’re just entering the second year of running our own, and in that sense still feel very much like new farmers. Questions that never arose when we received a paycheck from someone else are coming up now as we face the challenge of creating a financially-sustainable farm that can support us. So we turn to more experienced farmers for guidance.

Last February, at the NOFA-VT winter conference, Edge attended a workshop on Bio-Intensive Market Gardening lead by Jean-Martin Fortier. Edge emerged from the workshop with a copy of The Market Gardener, Jean-Martin’s book (recently translated into English) and a new wave of excitement and ideas for our own farm. Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches own Les Jardins de la Grelinette in St-Armand, Quebec, about 20 minutes north of the Vermont border. Jean-Martin describes the farm as “a micro-farm internationally recognized for its high productivity and profitability using low-tech, high-yield methods of production.”  On 1.5 acres, they produce enough food to feed over 200 families every week, and are able to pay themselves a living wage that supports their family. As Jean-Martin writes, “We don’t work for the farm, the farm works for us.” This lifestyle is exactly what we aspire to at Good Heart Farmstead.

The book confirms some key concepts that we’ve been building our into our farm: a small market garden can be a profitable business based on its low start-up costs, low infrastructure requirements, and, with bio-intensive growing methods, high crop yields. Jean-Martin lays out nearly everything from finding the right land to choosing appropriate machinery, from starting seeds to harvest and storage tips, and even discusses the philosophical reasons for bio-intensive market gardening. As Edge and I spent the end of the winter planning our garden, we kept The Market Gardener on our table, open to the crop plans section. As a result we have honed in on crop rotations that allow us to be better organized and more intentional as crops move from the greenhouse into the field.

In mid-May we had the opportunity to visit Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène at their farm in St. Armand. We arrived the day before their annual plant sale, and transplants were flowing out of their greenhouse, which also held two rows of chest-high trellised tomatoes. Despite this multitude of plants, it is still incredible to think about how much food leaves this farm each week.

During our visit we toured the gardens, asked questions on growing techniques and efficiencies, learned again about soil-building and ways of prepping beds without tilling the soil, saw practical ways to keep prepped beds weed free until you’re ready to plant (by covering them with a heavy black tarp), and helped transplant leeks into deep holes so hilling wouldn’t be required to produce a long white shaft. Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène have put subtle practices in place all over the farm that allow them to operate with much greater efficiency while increasing plant health and yield. But to write it all here wouldn’t capture it as well as Jean-Martin already has in his book. What I really took away from our visit is this:

Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène continually learn—they remain open rather than set in old ways, constantly looking for ways to improve. Eliot Coleman writes that “Jean-Martin’s book is very well done and should be of great use to market growers everywhere. Exchange of ideas and information is so important because when we pass ideas on, the next person gets to start where we got to and take the ideas to another level.” As we were planting leeks, Jean-Martin told me that he chooses one crop each year to really focus on and learn how to grow better. Last year was leeks, this year is carrots. There are so many aspects of farming, but this commitment to continual learning and innovating seems to be at the heart of the micro-farm’s success. It’s easy to read a book and conclude that the author has the perfect spot with everything figured out. But during our visit to Les Jardins de la Grelinette, we saw that they must contend with high winds and flapping row cover as well; they too have cucumber beetles and challenging moments like the rest of us.

In a way, it’s encouraging to know this. There are days on our farm when I question how we’ll ever do it all, and there are other days when time works in our favor and I feel so alive with the work of growing food that everything seems possible. The practical guidance offered in The Market Gardener is an invaluable resource, but even more encouraging is the reminder that we aren’t completely naïve in thinking we can do this. The life we aspire to is possible: a profitable micro-farm that is financially and ecologically sustainable, and that even gives us the flexibility to take a vacation once in a while. As Jean-Martin says, it is possible to “grow better instead of bigger.”

To learn more about Jean-Martin and The Market Gardener, visit You can also learn more about the history of Les Jardins de la Grelinette in this interview with Jean-Martin.

Posted in Commercial Growing, Farmer Authors, Philosophy | 2 Comments

Winter CSA Basics: Bringing the Seasons into Balance

This will be our tenth winter running a winter CSA at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, VT, and every year I have been amazed at the enthusiasm our farm members have for winter crops. There is a glaring, fundamental difference between summer and winter shares: in the summer, things start light and slow—salad greens give way to hardier greens, then come zucchini and cucumbers, then the first tomatoes, and the arc of summer begins to peak with melons and sweet corn and eggplant and peppers, and then the creamy fall vegetables fill the tables: squash and carrots and potatoes. By the final summer CSA pickup in early November, I feel like our members have watched us perform in all our own varying colors of the season, watched us smile on crisp summer days, groan with humidity and mosquitoes, bend and lift boxes over, and dash around with the mania of the season. There is an intimacy that develops as each week they come to experience whatever we’ve managed to harvest from the earth.

But the winter share is a different story. For the first several weeks, many of the crops are still harvested for the shares. We pick kale, leeks, Brussels sprouts and other greens for as long as the weather allows. But by January, the weather has usually halted any fresh harvests beyond what we are growing in our high tunnels. The bulk of the share is squash, cabbage, and a wide variety of roots. And the vegetables are remarkable in quality, flavor, color, and texture. However, regardless of how well we are able to store the crops, the truth of the matter is that each week the vegetables are a little less fresh and vibrant. We can’t re-create the arc and glory of the summer share. Instead, it feels like a slow decline, a grasping at something that we want to be so vital, but we can’t fight the fundamental truth of winter in Vermont. The season ends, things die, and the cycle of life needs to pause before we sow seeds again in March. But our markets and “eat local” bellies have us pushing hard against nature, and thus we have developed a winter share that is relatively successful at staving off the winter food doldrums. Here are a few key elements to our success and the path that led us there.

Storage Quality and Crop Diversity

The core of our winter share is based on a trio of “roots choice”, winter squash, and cabbage. Our members come every other week for nine weeks, which gives them an 18 week spread of produce. We try to provide them with enough food for that two week stretch, but not so much that they can’t store it comfortably at home. The formula that has seemed to work for us is the following:

  • We offer one winter share size. Many members split it between two families.
  • Each week, they get 10-12 pounds of a “roots choice” one, sometimes two, butternut squash, one head of cabbage (choice of red, Napa, or green), and a selection of whatever greens are available, usually between ¼ to ½ pound of fresh spinach.
  • We make sure that we grow enough roots to always have carrots, onions, and potatoes available. We generally have a full season supply of the following as well: beets, rutabaga, celeriac and then partial seasons of turnips, daikon radish, kohlrabi and various other oddball roots.

The success of our winter share depends on our storage quality. We have invested heavily in storage, increasing our capacity and infrastructure significantly in the past decade. We now have two walk-in coolers that we keep at different temperatures to accommodate the storage preferences of various root crops. We also invested in insulating a large room that we heat each year for squash storage. We’ve benefited from the expertise of UVM Extension Ag Engineer Chris Callahan’s information and the work he is doing to help farmers improve storage conditions and efficiency.

We also do our best to provide as diverse a mix of foods as possible throughout the winter. Our members come to the farm and are able to select their own produce from a range of options. They can take whatever mix of roots they want to make up their total amount—it’s fine with us if they want all potatoes or all turnips. We’ve been able to accurately predict the ratios of crops that members take and are able to wholesale any extra crops we have left at the end of the winter share. If we have a failure of a crucial crop, we try to buy or trade for it from other local, organic farms.

Late Season Surprises or Value-Added Bonuses

A minor strategy that has also helped our members cheerfully withstand the long winter of root crops is to save a surprise for them towards the end of the winter share. This has taken various forms over the years—when we experimented with salsify and scorzonera (root crops also know as Oyster Root), we added them to the share in March. When we grew popcorn, we waited until February to give it out, likewise with frozen broccoli and tomatoes. These additions to the winter share came at some extra expense to the farm, but the jolly reception they received made us consider how better to integrate value-added crops more routinely into the winter share. It seems like any change from the routine is welcome to CSA members in late winter.

Fresh Greens

In the winter of 2004, we experimented with a crop of salad greens in our greenhouse and high tunnels in anticipation of offering a winter share the following season. Although we knew that the volume of greens wouldn’t make them the core of our winter share, we also didn’t want to offer a winter share without knowing that we could provide fresh greens most weeks.

We’ve hit pretty close to the mark in terms of offering some amount of greens for the bulk of the winter, but don’t promote them as essential to our winter share. We cautiously advise our members about this, and we’ve also routinely asked this as a question on our end-of-season survey. Survey says: our membership loves the fresh greens and clearly would appreciate as much as we could grow, but they also haven’t loudly complained about our limited production thus far. We’re increasing our capacity this year with the construction of more high tunnels, and are sure that our members will love the improvement.

Crop Planning

Although the next winter share season seems a long way off when you are crop planning in December and January, it’s essential to integrate it into the summer cropping plan. Root crops need to be seeded on schedule with other fall crops; just because the crops are going to be eaten in the dark of winter, they still need to be harvested along with everything else. For our farm, this has made for busier autumn harvests as well as a general increase in work all year long. When we doubled our onion production for the first year of winter share, we were surprised to see how quickly our greenhouse filled up in March. It’s also meant a shift in our crop rotations since potatoes and winter squash now occupy a large portion of our production land. We also need to plan well in advance for seeding greens, especially since it’s hard to prioritize seeding spinach in the midst of our busy September harvest. However, missing that narrow seeding window is easy to do and has big consequences on the other end.

Continued Customer Contact

One of the major benefits for our farm from the winter share has been sustained contact with a core group of members all winter long. One of our successful and simple strategies is to have the farmers staff the pickups. Many members cite this as one of their favorite things about the farm—they get to chat with us, learn strategies for storing and preparing their vegetables, and get to understand a little more about where their food comes from. For me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know a subset of our membership more intimately (our summer share numbers around 550; while winter shares number around 175). It’s also a chance to share the farm with people when there is skiing or a giant snow pile for kids to clamber on.

Famer Sanity and Winter Breaks

Finally, as much as I love the winter share and the continuity it provides in my farming life, I would never do it if I were running our farm alone. Our farm has a unique ownership and management structure—we are a member-owned cooperative with two full time farmers—and this allows me to take chunks of time off.  In fact, one of our goals in creating the winter share was to provide more work for our seasonal staff in the off-season, not to create more burdens for the already-busy full time farmers. If the income generated by the winter share didn’t justify more job opportunities for staff, I would be less enthusiastic about it. One of the beautiful things about farming is the seasonal nature of it, and one of the dangers of season extension is that we are narrowing the window in which to enjoy the luxury of winter adventure or hibernating. If the winter share tied me down for the entire winter, I’d definitely reconsider its merits!

There are a lot of farms running impressive, successful winter CSA programs throughout Vermont and the region. All it takes is extra planning, careful storage, and a thoughtful approach to your audience and personal time. And, of course, a strong enthusiasm for the wealth of winter beets, squash, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage—with a handful of fresh spinach tossed on top!

Posted in Commercial Growing, Winter Growing | 1 Comment

Bee the Change: Inviting Pollinators to the Table

Giveaway! We’re giving away a crate of pollinator-friendly goodies including A Bee’s Garden Organic Non-GMO seed collection from High Mowing, tinctures from Urban Moonshine, seed bombs and skin care products from Badger Balm. See the end of this article for contest info! Contest ends 6/15/14.

As awareness of the sudden decline in honeybee and native bee populations grows, farmers and gardeners alike are wondering what they can do to help these small but powerful allies. Some people have taken up beekeeping, while others are learning about attracting pollinators and providing habitat and food sources. This phenomenon touches all of us, since we all consume foods pollinated by bees, and it is driving a sense of personal responsibility to steward the bees. Whether you have a large farm, a small garden, or just a few containers in the city, you can make a conscious choice to plant species that will attract and nourish your local pollinators.

A Fancy for Flowers

…but what kind?  Bees need pollen and nectar from flowers in order to survive and reproduce. They enjoy a wide array of blooms throughout the season, which is important to note. To attract bees and keep them well-satiated for the entire season, it is essential to choose a variety of flowers that blossom in spring, summer, and fall, or ones with long blooming cycles. Even something as simple as allowing your late-season broccoli side shoots to flower, rather than pulling the plants when the harvest is over, can provide food in the fall when pollen and nectar are in short supply. And remember to deadhead spent flowers to encourage new blossoms to come on!

Flower Color, Shape and Pattern

In general, bees are more attracted to white, blue, purple, and yellow flowers than they are to red, pink, or orange. In addition, flowers with double petals often have less pollen and nectar and make it more difficult for bees to access the inner part of the flower and are therefore not as beneficial as single flowers. Another thing to consider is how bees forage—if you watch them in the garden, you will notice that they prefer to visit all the flowers of one type before moving onto the next variety. This is because it is more efficient to gather pollen and nectar from similar-shaped flowers than to constantly switch between varieties. For this reason, planting individual varieties in large clumps (ideally four or more feet in diameter) is preferable to scattering them across your landscape.

Recommended Varieties

At the end of this article you can find a list of many flowers, herbs, veggies, cover crops, and even some perennial trees and shrubs that make good pollinator plants. As an added bonus for helping the bees, keep in mind that interplanting flowers and herbs with vegetable crops can encourage pollination and result in higher yields. Learning the bloom cycles and choosing a variety of the most desired colors will not only make for a more stunning garden, but will satiate honeybee colonies and encourage wild pollinators to stick around. Just remember—the bees need flowers and don’t benefit at all from plants that are never allowed to flower. Basil, for example, produces wonderful flowers for pollinators, but most gardening experts will advise you to pinch off the flowers in favor of leaf production. Perhaps this is the year to consider growing a few basil plants just for their beautiful and bee-friendly flowers!

Wild bees were here long before our homes and farms, so at one time, native species were the only source of food for pollinators. So keep in mind that wildflower mixes and other native species are great food sources as well as cultivated varieties. For some folks, it may seem unsightly to have an overgrown lawn, but bees will benefit from having at least some areas of your yard left untouched to allow what we call weeds—like clover, dandelion, milkweed, and goldenrod—to grow and flower. Native milkweed in particular is an essential food source for monarch butterflies. This combination of just four wild species will bloom and provide food for pollinators the whole season long.

Avoid Toxic Chemicals

It is also important avoid the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides, as many of these are detrimental to the health of bees. Chemicals like these, particularly a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, have been implicated as a likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is the term for the current mass decline in honeybee populations. CCD doesn’t result in the slow decline of hives—usually entire colonies of adult bees disappear from hives practically overnight. This is a strong indicator that the bees are leaving the hives relatively healthy, then coming in contact with something in the environment that confuses them enough that they can’t make it home again. Neonicotinoids, the main ingredients in many popular lawn and garden products and now the most common pesticides on earth, can kill bees outright and in smaller doses impair their ability to fly, navigate, and forage for food. To learn more about neonicotinoids and their impact on pollinators, check out this article by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Making Your House a Home

Providing food throughout the seasons will help to attract bees to your garden, but creating habitat opportunities will encourage them to stay and reproduce. Some wild bees are soil dwellers, digging tunnels for egg laying, while others burrow in wood. Keeping a small brush pile or some dead wood in your yard and allowing some tall grasses to grow can help to give the bees the materials they need to build their preferred home.

In addition, bees need access to fresh water to live. This can be something as simple as a bird bath with stones for bees to stand on or basically any shallow water source where they can drink, but not drown, will suffice. Providing water means the bees do not need to leave your property for a drink and will therefore be more likely to hang around.

What’s a Farmer to Do?

Farmers perhaps more than any other group tend to be aware of the plight of pollinators. Perhaps it is because they are partly dependent on pollinator success for their own success, or perhaps it’s because they spend their days outdoors in contact with nature. Either way, farmers across the US are showing great interest in protecting pollinators, and many workshops and resources are becoming available to help them do so. By planting pollinator mixes along hedgerows and in fallow ground, leaving scrap wood or brush piles in place, and providing bare ground for ground-nesting bees, farmers can help the bees while also increasing crop productivity and promoting ecological health.

At High Mowing we are engaged in a new effort to support our pollinator friends this year. Our farm crew took a trip to New Hampshire for a recent workshop offered by the Xerces Society and came back so excited to try out what they learned! So this year we’re using some great techniques to help native pollinators thrive on our 40-acre organic farm. These include:

  • Planting strips of pollinator-friendly flowers in the driverows within fields
  • Leaving an unmowed margin around each field to provide habitat
  • Maintaining our riparian zones, which were planted to native trees and flowers last year
  • Ensuring that existing hedgerows, brush piles and bare spaces remain intact
  • Supporting our native pollinators to reduce our purchases of imported bumblebees (which may carry diseases that can affect other species)

As seed growers dependent on the work of millions of bees for pollination of our seed crops, bees are essential to our survival. Check out this article Tom Stearns wrote last year to learn more about our amazing relationship with pollinators!

Bee the Change You Wish to See

Since you are reading this article, you probably do not consider bees to be a summertime nuisance. You probably already know that they are responsible for pollination of over 30% of our food supply, accounting for over $15 billion worth of apples, almonds, berries, cucumbers, squash, melons, and many more. You probably know that the bees need advocates…and safeguarding. And you are probably hoping to bee a part of the solution. By simply providing food, water, and habitat, you too can do your part.

Here are some pollinator-friendly plants we recommend, with their bloom times noted.

Want to keep it simple? Check out our Bee’s Garden Seed Collection!

Annual Flowers

Perennial Flowers

  • Aster (Late Fall)
  • Baptisia (Summer)
  • Bee Balm (Summer)
  • Black Eyed Susan (Late Summer-Fall)
  • Catmint (Summer-Fall)
  • Coreopsis (Summer)
  • Daisies (Summer)
  • Hyssop (Summer)
  • Joe Pye Weed (Late Summer)
  • Liatris (Summer)
  • Lobelia (Late Summer-Fall)
  • Lupine (Summer)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)
  • Russian Sage (Summer to Fall)
  • Salvia (Summer)
  • Scabiosa (Summer)

Herbs (Most bloom Summer-Fall)

Trees & Shrubs

  • Berries (Spring)
  • Fruit trees (Spring-Summer)
  • Lilac (Late Spring)
  • Witch Hazel (Varies)

Vegetables (Summer)

Cover Crops (Spring-Fall)


  • Clover
  • Dandelion
  • Goldenrod
  • Milkweed
  • Vetch

ENTER TO WIN! We’re giving away a crate of pollinator-friendly goodies including a Bee’s Garden Organic Seed Collection from High Mowing Organic Seeds, seed bombs, tinctures from Urban Moonshine and skincare products from Badger Balm.


  • Leave a comment on this blog post telling us what you’re doing to help the bees this season!

Winner will be chosen using on 6/15/14. One entry per person please.

Posted in About High Mowing Organic Seeds, Growing Tips | 290 Comments

High Mowing Offers First Non-GMO Project Verified Vegetable Seeds

High Mowing has long been a leader in the organic and sustainable seed movement. As such, we are honored to announce that we are about to become the first Non-GMO Project Verified vegetable seed company! High Mowing has been 100% organic since our founding in 1996 and we have never sold genetically modified (GM) seeds. We are looking forward to further demonstrating our commitment to the organic food movement through Non-GMO Project Verification.

A Little Background

High Mowing has been certified organic since 1996, one year after the first GM crops were approved for commercial use in the United States. GM crops are created by adding genetic material from one species into the DNA sequence of another species. The result of genetic modification by laboratory methods is a combination of genetic materials that could not occur naturally. Traditional breeding is different, wherein pollen is moved between members of the same species. Plant breeders carry pollen from one plant to another by hand or with the help of insects to produce controlled crosses of two individual plants.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are not allowed in certified organic production and we have never sold GM seeds. As new GM crops are released to the general public, however, there is an increased risk of GM crops cross-pollinating organic crops. High Mowing is committed to Non-GMO Project Verification to help reduce these risks. It has always been our goal to provide seeds that are safe and healthy for people and the planet. For us, that means helping to protect the many traits that have been isolated through selective breeding so that they can be utilized by future generations.

The Non-GMO Project

The Non-GMO Project is a third-party voluntary labeling system that is part of the “Right to Know” movement. This movement is driven by the principle that consumers have the right to be able to make informed choices about their food through full disclosure of GM ingredients (or the lack therof) on product packaging. Since mandatory labeling of GM ingredients has not yet been adopted in the United States, many companies are having their products verified through the Non-GMO Project, thereby allowing consumers to make an educated choice.

The Non-GMO Project helps companies develop procedures to avoid GMOs in their products and facilitates testing for the presence of genetically modified DNA. Non-GMO Project standards are aligned with those adopted by the European Union. High Mowing has been providing support and advice to the Non-GMO Project since 2008, helping to expand their understanding of the seed industry and the need for rigorous testing standards.

Why Verify?

We believe that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food and should be able to make informed decisions based on accurate labeling of food and the seeds used to produce food. GM contamination is a potential hazard whose long-term effects are largely unstudied, since safety assessments (which are not required by the FDA) have almost exclusively been conducted by the same companies who market GMOs. For this reason, more than 60 countries around the world now require labeling of GMOs. In the absence of a national labeling policy in the US, we are dedicated to ensuring consumer safety by verifying our seeds.

When is it happening?

Now! High Mowing is in the process of completing Non-GMO Project Verification and is currently 90% verified. We will be 100% Non-GMO Project Verified in late summer of 2014. High Mowing Organic sprouting seed packets already bear the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal appearing on High Mowing vegetable, herb, and flower seed packets this summer! We are currently in transition with our packaging and will be adopting the Non-GMO Project Verified seal on all package sizes in the future.

How does it work?

As a farm-based seed company, High Mowing is in a unique position to determine how seeds on our farm and those of our contract growers are produced. This means that we can help put in place standards that make it very unlikely that contamination would occur. In addition, we provide safeguards to ensure that if it did happen, we would be able to catch the problem and prevent sale of the seed. As new GM crops become commercially available, we are committed to re-assessing our standards to encompass the new crops at risk.

The Non-GMO Project Verification process is made up of three key components. These are segregation, testing, and traceability.

  • Segregation is the concept that organic crops must be kept separate from GMO crops, starting in the farm fields where they’re grown and ending in the facilities where they’re packaged. All farm and processing equipment must be dedicated for non-GMO crops only. For us that means ensuring that the fields where our organic seed crops are grown are isolated adequately from any GMO fields that could cross-pollinate them.
  • Testing is essential to ensure that organic crops were adequately segregated from GM ones. “High Risk” varieties that can be cross-pollinated by GM varieties are tested before they leave our facility. Currently we test samples of our seed for qualitative assessment from the laboratory (detect/non-detect).  If a test detects GMOs then we will not sell the seed.
  • Traceability helps ensure that if contamination occurs, its source can be identified. Through the use of a comprehensive batch and lot system, we are able to identify not only the farm that a particular seed lot came from, but also the field where it was grown. In this way we can ensure that any problem that occurs can quickly be resolved.

A note about CMS seed

Lately people have been asking us about artificial CMS or cell fusion hybrid seed. The term CMS refers to Cytoplasmic Male Sterility, a trait now widely used in commercial hybridization to produce female parent lines for hybrid varieties. Traditionally male pollen has been eradicated through emasculation, or the physical removal of the plant’s pollen-producing organs. Artificial CMS eliminates the need to emasculate—by combining the cells of two members of the same plant family, such as radish and broccoli, one can cause male sterility in the broccoli parent. CMS can occur naturally as a result of mutations in a single species and has been observed in over 150 plant species; however CMS induced for the purpose of hybridization is artificial and the two varieties would not normally interbreed. Despite this, the USDA National Organic Standards Board has ruled that artificial CMS is allowable in organic production.

However, High Mowing feels that artificial CMS still constitutes genetic engineering and does not sell any varieties derived from the artificial CMS technique. The hybrids we sell and those we develop in our organic breeding program are produced either through naturally-occurring CMS or through a completely different method called self-incompatibility or SI, which is also a natural method and does not require any laboratory steps. We choose to work with companies that specialize in organic seed breeding and use methods of breeding that are more consistent with our own breeding efforts and the tenets of organic agriculture. Bejo Seeds, Vitalis Organic Seeds, and Rijk Zwaan stand out in this regard and we are proud to work with them in developing hybrid brassicas and more. Check out this recent article by High Mowing customer Donald Sutherland to learn more about CMS seed.

A Roadmap for the Future

As one of the founding companies and primary supporters of the organic seed industry, we feel it is our responsibility to raise the bar for all seed. At a time when GM crops are entering our food supply and wild ecosystems, it is more important than ever to preserve the purity of our seed resources. We are not willing to take any chances with our seeds—and we know you aren’t either. Providing our customers with an additional layer of safeguards against GMO-contaminated seeds will help ensure the future we want to see. A non-GMO food supply should, after all, begin with non-GMO seeds.

We are continuing to develop standards that will shape the future of segregation, testing, and traceability practices for seeds. As always, we welcome your thoughts as we move forward.

Posted in About High Mowing Organic Seeds, Farm Ethics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The World’s Best Tomato Trellis

When it comes to tomato trellising, sometimes I feel like I’ve seen it all. The farms I’ve worked on usually use either the Florida Basket Weave (which sounds like a fancy hairdo to me) or tomato clips with the Greenhouse-String Method (which sounds like a bluegrass band). Home gardeners seem to use everything from simple wooden stakes to twirly metal ones, from classic round tomato cages to giant square ones that cost 50 bucks a pop and still lean like the tower of Pisa. People seem to get mighty creative in figuring out how to wrangle these unruly fruits, and for a long time it seemed like there was no taming them. But my life changed forever when my clever friend showed me her system, which had been built 20 years earlier and was still just as sturdy and useful as in its first year. Cheap, durable, versatile, long-lasting, and easy – those are 5 words not usually associated with tomatoes. But they certainly apply well to this trellis using concrete reinforcing wire.


To build this trellis, you really just need 4 things: a sheet of concrete reinforcing wire, zipties, two cedar posts, and a rubber mallet. Concrete reinforcing wire (also called “Remesh”) can be purchased at a home improvement store and costs about $8 per sheet. It’s basically heavy-duty wire mesh (intended to reinforce concrete foundations) with 4” or 6” square openings and comes in a sheet  about 4’ wide and 7’ long.

You’ll also need two 6’ cedar posts (the kind that are sharpened to a point on one end), usually about $2 each, a package of zipties (maybe $5, also from a home improvement store) and a rubber mallet from any hardware store. The only challenging thing about this trellis is figuring out how to transport the wire sheets. When you go to buy them, make sure to wear your dirtiest, most garden-ready clothes, and cover the interior of your vehicle with a tarp – the sheets are always rusty and in the process of ziptying them into a tube that can fit in a car you will get covered in rust. A pickup truck makes this a lot easier!

Building the Trellis

Making this trellis is so easy that you can put it up by yourself in no time. Just pound your cedar stakes into the ground 6-7’ apart (along your future tomato row) using the rubber mallet. Then attach the top of the sheet of reinforcing wire to the top of the stakes at either end using zipties. The rough texture of the cedar stakes helps the zipties grip the wood and stay nice and sturdy. You’ll notice that there’s a big gap between the ground and where the trellis begins, but will find that this is actually a good thing.

Just Weave and Harvest!

Once planted under the trellis, your tomato plants will have some time to grow. Then, just as they’re starting to get viney and flop over, they’re tall enough to get woven through the holes of the trellis. As your tomato plants grow, keep pruning off the suckers and weaving the leader back and forth through the wire. The key is to be very gentle when weaving – tomato plants are flexible, but will break if bent too much. But the ultimate reward for your efforts is a literal wall of tomatoes. The plants don’t have to put energy into holding themselves up, so they can focus on producing fruit, and the plants get great air circulation because there’s none of that jungly mess you usually have to deal with. Less jungle = less disease = more tomatoes! Plus, picking tomatoes off your new “wall” is as easy as taking them off the shelf in the grocery store (and way more gratifying).


Like any good gardener, you’re probably doing some quick math in your head. Except I’m going to beat you to it. So…

For two cedar posts:

  • two cedar posts at $2 each = $4
  • one sheet concrete reinforcing wire = $8
  • zipties = $5
  • TOTAL = $17
  • 4 plants at $4.25 each

For four cedar posts:

  • four cedar posts at $2 each = $8
  • two sheets concrete reinforcing wire = $16
  • zipties = $5
  • TOTAL = $29
  • 8 plants at $3.63 each

Since this trellis can easily support 4 tomato plants (and probably 6 if you’re an optimist), that comes out to $4.25 per plant. If you do more than one, the cost goes down even more because you just need one pack of zipties. That’s roughly the same as a standard round tomato cage. But keep in mind – a standard cage won’t do anything for your tomato plants once they’re over 3 or 4 feet tall. In my experience the round cages always fall apart in one or two seasons – the plants are too big and heavy for them, and then the stakes come off the rings, and then you’re trying to figure out how to stake a plant with a cage around it when it’s already gotten tangled up with all your other plants. I save myself the headache and squashed fruit, make a small one-time investment in this genus I love so well, and sit back to watch my lycopersicon vines climb. At the end of the season, you can leave your trellises in place or pull up the stakes, roll them up with the wire, and store until next season (they make a great support for peas in the spring, too!) Not sure what to do with all those half-functioning tomato cages? Those work great for eggplant.

If this trellising system doesn’t work for you, be sure to check out an earlier blog post “Trellising Your Organic Tomatoes” for alternate ideas!

Posted in Beginner Gardeners' Guide, Growing Tips | Tagged | 19 Comments