This season, CFSA asks about greenhouses, new seed varieties and winter growing tips

Hoophouses and greenhouses are a great way to extend your growing season. Photo from

Daniel Parson of Parson Produce in Clinton, SC
Judy Lessler of Harland’s Creek Farm in Pittsboro, NC
Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro, NC
Pat Battle of Sparkling Earth Farm in Burnsville, NC
Stefan Hartmann of Black River Organic Farm in Ivanhoe, NC

Tell us about your greenhouses and/or hoophouses for this winter.

DANIEL: At the Presbyterian College (PC) campus garden, we built a 12’ x 98’ hoophouse using a lost creek pipe bender, and I’m impressed with the quality even without heat during this cold winter. The two small beds were direct seeded with arugula and mustard, both of which look great.

JUDY:  My experience this winter has been frustrating.  I am putting up a new high tunnel with money from an EQIP grant that was available for organic farmers and was not able to get started until mid-November.  I think this high tunnel  is going to be excellent because even with just some flapping tarps over the ends, it warms up fast inside.

DOUG:  I’ve grown winter crops under “low tunnels” for many years, but this is the winter I chose to bump it up, to finally be a completely-year-round farm, with a new double-skin high tunnel and 5 new 14’ x 150’ “caterpillar” movable tunnels.  Materials for the latter were funded mostly by a grant from the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, but the labor of constructing them from scratch has been huge, and the maintenance is also considerable.  I’m still waiting to see some payback. Crops have grown okay on sunny days in the high tunnel, but the caterpillar ones have been almost at a stand-still.

PAT: I’m involved with several Winter growing projects using many systems including doubled up row cover for cabbage and collards, plastic tunnels  over row cover for cabbage, winter density lettuce, tatsoi  and purple pac choi.  Also, row covered (mid-weight polypropylene) broccoli, rutabagas, and cabbage.  South of Asheville, we’re growing celeriac, lettuce, mustard, tatsoi, rutabagas, kale, and chard in an inflated double wall multi-bayed unheated greenhouse with no row cover.  Finally, I put in a mix of salad cooking and braising greens in Celo (my coldest site) in a 1970’s style solar greenhouse with row cover over the crops.  This year growth in all sites was great until the deep cold hit.  Now, only the warmer sites are still growing.

STEFAN:  We chose not to do any unheated greenhouse greens. We have had very good success with just floating row covers here in the usually more temperate Coastal Plain. The key to the success of floating row covers is in warming the cover supplies, keeping soil temperatures high enough to keep nutrients flowing, and the ability to keep drying winds off the crop. The drawback has always been that weeds and aphids love these conditions.

We started tomatoes in early December.  These will be transplanted in early February into the next greenhouses. Early tomatoes are key to our farmers’ market and CSA success.

Any particular seed catalogs or companies that have you excited this year?  New varieties?

DANIEL: Last year was the first year I spent more with High Mowing than Johnny’s.  I’m excited about some of their European varieties, particularly the butter lettuces.  Last spring, I grew Roxy and Sylvesta, and I would swear they were the same varieties that I saw in the markets of Paris. Our upstate Slow Food convivium is excited about the Ark of Taste, so I’m thinking about adding a few of those varieties. One I grow from that list every year is Cherokee Purple tomato, and one I’m growing more of this year is Amish Paste tomato.  The Amish Paste doesn’t seem to grow as well as San Marzano, but I liked the taste better.

JUDY:  I have been really pleased with the new High Mowing catalogue.  All their seeds are certified organic, and this year they have a number of new varieties.  I have ordered a new cherry tomato variety (Toronijino) which is advertised as the first organic seed variety that can compete with Sun Gold.

DOUG:  I’m most excited about my own farm-bred varieties, and I’m pleased to say that the new Asheville seed company, Sow True Seeds, will be carrying 9 of my varieties, with more in the pipeline.  My “Sweet Jemison” and “Abundance” peppers are big, sturdy, and very sweet, and the “Tobago Seasoning Mix” collection is loaded with the background flavor of habanero but with none of the heat.

Good varieties are so important to success in vegetable growing.  I could name so many favorites, but tops on my current list are these from Fedco:  “Sayamusume” Edamame, “Goldflower” watermelon, “Jade” green beans, “Caribe” slow-bolting cilantro, and “Evenstar Landrace Tatsoi”, a mild mustard developed by Brett Grohsgal, who spoke at this year’s SAC.  I also love Johnny’s “Cherokee” red lettuce for heads, and High Mowing’s “Malawi” red oakleaf lettuce for salad mix.

PAT:  If you have not checked out Baker Creek’s selection of Winter squash and you want more vine borer resistant options than just Long Island Cheese and Butternut, Baker’s has a wonderful selection of moschata (butternut) &  mixta (cushaw).  Both of these families are very resistant to vine borers.  For the past decade or so I have been quite happy to rely on Fedco for most of my seed  with Johnny’s for seed needed as fast as possible.  But thanks to this year’s SAC, I’ve rediscovered Southern Exposure and was delighted to see that they have Mescher lettuce, which I’d lost years  ago and love.

STEFAN: We really like Johnny’s Seeds, for their good germination, excellent service and ever expanding organic varieties. We are very excited about Ruby Streaks, a great addition to the salad mix.  Most of the time we tend to pick hybrid seeds for their vigor.  In the Coastal Plain quickness is the key!  It’s all over in August!

Any winter growing tips that you can’t resist sharing with fellow farmers?

DANIEL: I try to put my feet up during winter as much as possible. The biggest growing project right now is shiitake mushroom log inoculation, and winter is the best time for that.

JUDY:  My winter garden was killed the first week of December when we had a very windy 12 degree night.  Some $4,000 worth of salad mix, kale, arugula, etc. was killed.  My tip is: Close down and take your aching body south for the winter.  I am considering Panama.

DOUG:  Hardiness is a relative quality; any particular variety’s “threshold temperature for damage” can be lowered by previous exposure to cold, protection from wind, using hoops to keep covers from touching the plants, and selection for hardiness when saving your own seeds.  Farms in rural areas should automatically subtract 5-10 degrees from forecasted lows on clear nights.

PAT: My tip is that although light is certainly a big factor, I have had decent growth until the deep cold.  The difference is in the soil.  In the sites where the soil isn’t constantly in the low forties or colder, growth is still good enough.  But, where the soil is getting colder than this and staying there, plants are coming to a screeching halt with a few notable exceptions, such as Mache.

STEFAN:  We are growing micro greens in our well-heated greenhouse.  They pay the gas bill and keep the chefs happy and eager for the main crop.

Want more expert tips? Join CFSA!  One of the many benefits of membership is the Stewardship Newsletter.  You’ll receive an issue every season that is chock full of good ideas, expert tips, and more! 

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