Growing crops earlier and later than usual is a key to making a profit with fresh market fruit and vegetables.
The basics of production (soil preparation, fertility, irrigation, weed control) are even more important to get right when extending the season because the demands on the crop are higher and the land is in production for a much longer time, giving weeds more time to grow; wet weather more of a chance to flood fields; and fertility more time to run out.
To make a profit with a reasonable amount of labor, it is important to use the most efficient means of extending the season. For example, don’t plant carrots for a June harvest in a heated greenhouse if you could produce them with row cover in the open field at a fraction of the labour and materials cost.
To understand what season extension method to use when, an overview of some materials and techniques follows:
Warm, well-drained soil is critical. Without it, don’t even think of planting extra early crops. When faced with cold, heavy land, raised beds or ridges are the logical first step. The narrower the bed, the higher it will be. We are using 30” bed tops with 18” paths here at Bethany.
Row cover is the best place to begin, with season extension devices. It is highly effective, affordable, and easy to use. In the spring, we use it for almost all of our early crops. To prevent it from rubbing against tender plants, we use wire hoops to support the row cover. The hoops are inexpensive and quick to set up. Two things to consider: the hoops will not support a snow load, and they make the row cover more likely to blow away in heavy wind.
To hold the row cover down, I recommend UV resistant bags filled with gravel, crushed rock or sand. If they are heavy enough (at least 25 lbs) a bag every ten feet will hold even very wide sheets of row cover in place. Using sand bags is particularly helpful when removing and replacing the cover many times for frequently harvested crops like salad greens.
The hoop house or field tunnel we are putting up today is the next step up in crop protection that we use on our farm. Since these tunnels have no heat source and a minimal amount of structure, they are very easy to set up and take down. For the earliest and latest crops, I recommend using row cover inside the hoop houses for extra heat, and for frost protection.
Learning how to put these up is only a small part of using them well. Since they are so easily moved, there are many ways that you can rotate them throughout the season to maximize their productivity and minimize weeds and the over-use of any one part of your garden.
Starting in the fall, around early November or late October, depending on your local conditions, you could build the tunnel over beds of winter greens such as kale, tatsoi, spinach and arugula.
Once these crops have been harvested or succumb to the cold in late December, the crop residues can be smothered with silage tarp. We are going to do this today to familiarize everyone with this excellent no-till weed control technique.
In the late winter, about the third week in February, early spring crops like beet, carrot and salad greens can be planted. They will sprout and slowly grow in the weak sun of late winter but will take off in March and April. By May they will be ready to harvest or almost there.
Instead of waiting for these crops to fully mature, you can go ahead and move the tunnel onto the summer crop location, leaving the row cover on them for extra protection until the heat of late spring or early summer settles in.
Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are planted in late April or early May. To control weeds, I always use woven landscape fabric in the summer tunnel. The tunnel stays on the summer crops until the frosts of fall kill them (so sad). Down here in balmy Hants county, this usually happens in early November.
Season extension is crucial to the success of my farm and many others. Even with the odd failure, it is still highly rewarding and a lot of fun. When I consider the many times that my ambitious early and late plantings have failed, two things seem to come up over and over.
In early plantings, weed control has been my downfall many times. It is really hard to find time for careful cultivation during the insanity of the spring planting rush. More often than not, I get all excited to plant in early April, put row cover over a big block of crops and the neglect to weed them until it is almost too late. This year I bought a 30” wide flame weeder that has allowed us to efficiently weed our direct seeded crops. We are excited to use it next spring on our early crops. I think it will be the perfect tool to help us manage the weeding while we are busy planting.
With the last plantings of the year, a big challenge is getting the timing right. Planted too early and the crop will be over-mature, and too late will lead to a greatly reduced or even non-existant harvest.
Since these late fall and winter crops are planted in late summer and early fall, when there is often a lot of hot, dry weather, it’s important to have irrigation so that seeds can be reliably germinated the day they are planted and will grow steadily even in the hot, dry conditions these greens find challenging. A digital water timer set to run three times a day for about fifteen minutes is a great help in ensuring a successful crop.
Multi Shelter Solutions sells a Hanley House kit by the six foot section at an affordable price. www.sheltersolutions.ca 1-866-838-6729
For irrigation, floating row cover, and many other season extension supplies, I buy from Dubois Agrinnovation. Every spring, Scotian Gold Co-op in Coldbrook, Kings Co. places a large order from Dubois. This is a good way to save on shipping costs.
Dubois: 1-800-463-9999 www.duboisag.com
Scotian Gold: 902-679-6662
If there is enough interest, I may organize another order of landscape fabric in the late winter of 2014. Please contact me if you want some. Dubois also sells it at a fairly good price. email@example.com
The link below is for Hanley house building instructions. Some of the details are different than what we do but the layout is exactly the same and very well described.
Heliotrust has a number of pages about Hanley Hoop Houses and a video showing how to take one down and then put it up again. www.heliotrust.ca