Small Farm Canada
A Man for all Seasons
Eliot Coleman discusses the details of year-round gardening
By HELEN LAMMERS-HELPS
It was his “disinclination to give over his markets to the Californians every fall” that first piqued organic grower Eliot Coleman’s interest in four-season vegetable production at his Harbourside, Maine farm. While traditionally growing vegetables in the winter has meant using heated greenhouses, Coleman, a true innovator, sought a different approach. He wanted to see how much he could produce without supplemental heat.
Simplicity, low external inputs, and high-quality outputs were the guiding criteria for his year-round gardening system. “Our goal was to find the lowest tech and most economical way to extend fresh-vegetable harvest through the winter months,” he says. Coleman, who has been growing vegetables year-round on a commercial scale since 1995, has developed a fine-tuned growing system through his attention to detail.
Last year he produced $120,000 worth of vegetables from 1.5 acres, with only a quarter of an acre under cover, using very little supplemental heat.
Farming on the “back side of the calendar,” as he calls it, has many advantages. It means he can hold his markets, keep his crew employed, and it provides a more balanced year-round income, he says.
Growing vegetables year-round at Coleman’s Maine farm is no small feat. Located two-thirds of the way up the Maine coast on the 44th parallel, temperatures can dip as low as -29 degrees C. Using standard, plastic-covered, gothic style hoop houses allows Coleman to mimic growing conditions 500 miles south of his farm. Adding a second layer of protection, a floating row cover 30 cm above the soil, simulates growing conditions a thousand miles south of his farm, he says. Coleman calls his unheated greenhouses “cold houses,” as opposed to “hot houses.”
“Using the double layer of protection lengthens the growing season on both ends, basically for free, no heat required,” he explains. The only cost is the cost of the greenhouse and the row cover material.
Another key to the system is growing vegetables that do well in the cold instead of heat-loving plants such as tomatoes. These vegetables include spinach, Mesclun (a mix of baby salad greens), carrots, mâche, watercress, and potatoes. Many cold-tolerant vegetables can easily survive temperatures down to -12 degrees C or lower as long as they are not exposed to the additional stresses of outdoor conditions, he explains. The double coverage also increases the relative humidity in the protected area, which offers additional protection against freezing damage. Any type of lightweight floating row cover that allows light, air and moisture to pass through is suitable as the inner layer of material in the cold houses, he says.
Coleman maximizes the use of his greenhouses by moving them to where they’re needed. For example, he starts spinach in the greenhouse and once it’s safe from frost, about the third week in March, he can move the greenhouse to another location and use it to start another crop like carrots. By the end of April, the carrots no longer need protection and then he can start another crop like zucchini. This allows him to double the use of his capital investment in the greenhouses, he says. “We became involved with greenhouses because of our interest in growing winter crops and then wondered how to best use them for the rest of the year,” he says.
Planting at the right time for your conditions and environment is also crucial, he says. “For example, the trick with winter-harvest crops is to get the seeds in the ground in September, not November, so the crop has a chance to grow and put out new leaves,” he explains. “I think of August-September as the second spring.” Successive seedings also ensure a continual harvest.
Read the full, original article at Small Farm Canada.
The Globe and Mail
October 18, 2010
How to grow vegetables year-round
by Hadley Dyer
Do you dread surrendering your vegetable plot to Old Man Winter? You don’t have to, says Eliot Coleman, author of Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. Be the four-season gardener. Here are his tips.
For cold-hardy crops, fashion a tunnel-style greenhouse out of electrical conduit covered with plastic sheeting. Seed catalogues sell “hoop benders,” which form the conduit into a horseshoe shape that you then attach to a four-sided wooden frame. “If you and your neighbours go in on the tool together, you can make a mini-greenhouse for almost no money at all,” says Mr. Coleman, who tends an experimental market garden at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Me., with his wife, author and Washington Post columnist Barbara Damrosch.
Change the climate
Winter crops will thrive inside an old-fashioned cold frame – a bottomless box with a glass top that you can build (old windows work well) or purchase readymade. “Basically, you’ve changed the climate,” Mr. Coleman explains. “You’ve moved your garden 500 miles [800 kilometres], or one and a half growing zones, south. This lets you harvest up to Christmas with the very hardiest greens.” He suggests starting with spinach and Asian vegetables such as bok choy.
As temperatures drop, or if your region is already pretty chilly, you can add a greenhouse around your cold frame. “With a cold frame you’re providing a sweater for your plants. The greenhouse is like a windbreaker over the sweater,” Mr. Coleman says. “That second layer moves you an additional 500 miles south.”
Sow now, reap later
Unless you live in a relatively balmy climate such as Vancouver’s, winter crops should be sown by mid-October. But you can kick off an early-spring harvest by planting inside a cold frame in late fall. “Put some seeds in, no matter what,” Mr. Coleman advises. “Even if you get nothing to eat until spring, you’ll learn a lot. Gardening is a learning game.”
Read the full feature on The Globe and Mail.
Fall 2010 issue.
Click here to see the full piece online.
edibleASPEN: What has been the biggest change in the way people perceive food in the last decade?
Eliot Coleman: Back when we started, people would come to the farm stand because they remembered farm stands from when they were young. But now, local has become such a popular concept for food the biggest change is that the customers are driving to the farms instead of the other way around. People want local. In fact, the local movement has gone to a place in about five years that it took organic 40 years to do.
EA: Why do you think that is?
EC: I suspect lots of credit might go to Alice Waters or Michael Pollan. You can’t have books read by that many people without having some effect, and we have more and more competent young growers.
EA: What is your impression of the organic farming movement in western Colorado? How does it compare to other parts of the country?
EC: I’m pretty familiar with that part of Colorado. I spent summers running a kayak camp at CRMS—there’s actually a great farm there [at CRMS, it’s perfect. You guys [have] more winter sun, and it probably gets colder up in the mountains. But the biggest hangup is water. There’s no rain! That is what would have kept me from settling there.
EA: What is it going to take to systematically change the way people eat in the United States?
EC: I think that’s happening; it’s just a case of getting the information out there. There’s always going to be a certain percentage of people that don’t change. For example, you can’t have more or stronger information about the dangers of tobacco than we have, yet 25 percent of people still smoke cigarettes. You are going to have that same percentage that are always going to eat Twinkies, but in time, companies with large plants are going to start encouraging farmers to set up farm stands at closing time, where people can buy organic produce. That would be a very smart idea. These companies are all paying huge health insurance amounts and just getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables will improve health, lower company costs and make a farmer happy at the same time. Those sorts of changes can happen.