On March 23, Keith and I attended 4 workshops designed to help people with few acres make their farms more profitable. It was called Putting Small Acres to Work and was put on by the U of I Extension at Lincoln Land Community College. There were three breakout sessions, each with 3 workshop choices, and then a general session for everyone. Because some have asked, I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts on the workshops we attended. This will not be comprehensive, but just general, and focus on what we learned and what we are thinking of doing with that information here on our farm.
The first workshop we attended was Growing Vegetables Year-Round, by Nathan Johanning of the U of I Extension. The focus was on using high tunnels to extend the growing season. A high tunnel is like a greenhouse, with the difference being that a high tunnel has no heat source other than the sun, whereas a greenhouse has some other additional heat source. We also attended a workshop on using a greenhouse, but that will be post #4. I apologize that I don’t have a photo of a high tunnel to put here, so I had to settle for one of our seeds that we started last year. You can easily Google pictures of one online. They are very similar to a greenhouse.
In the fall and winter we not only lose daylight, but the angle of the light is lower, which makes the sunlight much less effective than in the summer. The goal of the high tunnel is to capture as much light as possible. We want to capture the heat as well as the light as both are needed for plant growth. The plants need to be planted early enough so that major growth will be finished by December and then the light and heat available should be sufficient for maintenance. The plastic you use is also important. Thicker plastic, or a double plastic wall will protect the plants from the temperature changes better, but also reduces the amount of light that can get it. In addition, row covers are also generally used on the coldest nights, but need to be removed in the morning after the plants thaw so they can receive the light. They then need to be replaced in mid to late afternoon to trap heat before the temperature drops too much.
The types of plants you choose is important. As much as I might want tomatoes in mid-winter, they are a poor choice. Cold-hardy crops need to be used. Cole crops – broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower are good, as are greens like spinach, kale, chard, lettuce. Root crops like carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips and radishes work. So do leeks and green onions. You can look at seed catalogs for descriptions to see which are best in colder temps. You will also need to do some experimenting on your own to see what works best for you – be sure to keep notes because you’ll probably forget a lot of what you’ve done.
Besides what type of plants to grow, you need to figure out when to plant them, to get the majority of the growth finished before the daylight gets too low. This is where the surprise was for me. We have to plant much earlier than I thought we would in order for certain plants to do well. Here in central IL, things like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower would need to be started in mid-July. Beets, lettuce and turnips need to be started by August 1. Fall spinach and kale in mid- to late-August, and spring spinach the first week in September. I mistakenly thought we’d be planting everything in Sept or October. Our thought was to put up a high tunnel in the fall over our existing garden, but that isn’t going to work, since our summer crops will just be getting into their prime producing season. Now I’m wondering where to put one. Maybe in front of the garden between the driveways? The bigger issue there is that it’s more open to the wind, which can be quite nasty here. We’ll have to think on it more.
Other details on planting and caring for the plants is that the seeds should be planted deeper than in the spring, as well as closer together. Direct-seeded crops may be more cold tolerant than transplants. Watering is important, but when it’s colder, the plants won’t need as much as in the summer since the crops grow more slowly and it’s more humid inside the high tunnel. Drip tape is useful until it starts getting below freezing. Watering in midday is best when the night is going to be a little more mild to prevent freezing of the crops. Ventilation, when possible, is also important to prevent mildew. Harvesting should also be at midday. Be careful to not harvest more than 40% of the leaf area at any one time.
I don’t know if we’ll get a hoop house this year. Another option is low tunnels. They are cheaper, though more difficult to manage since you can’t just walk into the building and shut the door. But we may try one little row of broccoli, lettuce, and spinach and see how it goes. Having fresh greens in the winter would be nice. Any maybe we will actually have broccoli without worms