Farmer Doug’s winter crop

February 19, 2009 at 6:13 pm 1 comment

Got a notice the other day from Debbie Roos, our expert sustainable ag agent, inviting all to a “show and tell” at Piedmont Biofarm. Doug Jones would reveal his “season extension techniques” for growing food all year long. Sounded intriguing. I figured we would hang out in a toasty greenhouse with some hydroponic lettuce and maybe some exotic seedlings awaiting planting for the early-bird garden.

But Farmer Doug, ever the innovator, had something much more interesting in store. Instead of steaming in his greenhouses, we huddled in the mud this cold drizzly February eve as Doug dazzled all with an impressive array of root crops, colorful lettuce and cooking greens. Arugula, spinach, baby beets, turnips, garlic, strawberry plants and more leafy things were still thriving in the field long after most farmers had put their beds to sleep for a cold winter nap. And he’s already got his peas planted in the ground..

Farmer Doug nonchalantly explained his tricks of the trade, involving the careful stretching of various mils of milky plastic sheeting to form protective tunnels over each row, held up by individually shaped wire arches. The plastic covers were pulled taut (very taut, Doug insisted, for if the plastic sags and touches the plant, they will get burned by the frost). The tunnels were secured with little plastic red pins every couple of feet along the edges.

Doug revels in details, so he got down to ’em. You can weigh the plastic covers down with rocks but you have to use at least two at each spot, he counseled, because when it gets really windy, the plastic sheeting will cause the rock to roll (good for dancing, not for gardening) and you need the second rock as a brake. We heard about the pros and cons of 6 ply plastic versus construction-grade versus greenhouse cloth (the latter may be worth using in combination with one of the plastics when it gets down in the teens at night).

Doug, who has been experimenting with exquisite vegetables for 38 years, seems to enjoy choreographing the drama of covering and uncovering the plant rows at just the right moment to ensure the right daytime and nighttime temps for his winter babies. He knows from experience what happens when the day time temp under the plastic is too warm (the plants grow too quick and are weak) and the night time temperature is too cold (the lush but weak babies won’t be strong enough to survive). Like Goldilocks he wants it just right.

He also knows when it’s time for two layers of plastic during the day or night (and which combination of mils), and when it’s time to remove the sheets and let the seedlings breathe (to avoid fungus) and quickly cover them up again (to avoid insect predators who are not being killed off by their summer predators cause they’re already dead folks).

This is the kind of detail farmers love to jaw about and Farmer Doug loves to oblige. He could have talked all night and we would have listened. But it got dark and cold, so we said good-bye.

Farmer Doug could probably make a fortune on cable TV as the gardening guru, but we’re glad he prefers getting his hands dirty in PBO. We’re also grateful that he gets to grow all this good stuff because the good people at the Piedmont Biofuels biodiesel plant invited him to sow his farm wizardy at the end of Lorax Lane. Lucky for him and us an eight-foot cyclone fence around the property keeps the deer out and the innovators at work. Just right.

Learn more from Debbie Roos’ report, including details on extension techniques and resources.

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Jeff and Cameron’s excellent culinary adventure A free-range chicken in every pot

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