42. Let's Go for a Ride!

As I write this blog, Garden Variety Harvests produces vegetables on five different Roanoke City properties. They range in size from 800 square feet to over 1500 square feet of production space, and every plot is a little different. Some of our produce comes from community garden property, one plot is in a public park, and our backyard micro-farm at our home is directly across the street from another park. I’ll admit that some plots are further away from our home base in Garden City than I’d prefer. Several of the operations I’ve modeled the business after are much smaller geographically; some even run completely on pedal power, with farm workers towing trailers behind their electric-assist bicycles from plot to plot in a single neighborhood.

Pedal-powered smoothies have brought a very groovy vibe to the farmers market!

Pedal-powered smoothies have brought a very groovy vibe to the farmers market!

A farmer I really look up to in Montgomery County asked me a few months back whether I do farm tours open to the public. While I appreciate the ability of agro-tourism to educate foodies and consumers everywhere, I really considered it something exclusively for rural growers. But the more I’ve thought about it, this urban farm of mine is uniquely positioned to execute a tour of our fields if we look at alternative modes of transportation. Obviously it would take several days to walk the loop of GVH plots. And I’m not really keen to load a bunch of people up in a shuttle and bus them from stop to stop throughout town. But now that we have a relationship with local cyclist Michael Struble that has brought pedal-powered smoothies to the farmers market, we’ve found a way that we can offer an opportunity to tour the farm and benefit Michael’s epic Bike the US for MS ride at the same time!

On September 29th, as the southern summer is finally giving way to autumn, we’ll host the first ever Star City Urban Farm Bike Tour! The tour will not just visit GVH sites, but also two other operations in Roanoke who are working to prove that big-boy vegetable production is viable in an urban context. The farmers at those operations will lead a tour of their own properties and answer questions from the group, and riders will be given the chance to buy seasonal produce directly on farm. After the ride is complete, we’ll enjoy a catered meal from newly blossoming local food truck Wyrd Kitchen. All money raised from ticket sales will be donated toward Michael’s ride, and he’ll surely be leading our pack as we pedal around the city.

The ride should be manageable even for kids and beginners; the loop is 17 miles and relatively flat. We hope it will give a chance for people who are interested in local food to get out and explore great gardens in an active and engaging way. The group will be full of foodies, no doubt. And after sampling the recipe that Wyrd Kitchen has planned last night, I can promise your taste buds will not be disappointed.

If you don’t have a bike you’d like to ride on the tour, we can get you one to rent free of charge (thanks to RIDE Solutions)! So now that I’ve eliminated all the excuses you had for why you can’t ride with us, maybe you should check out this eventbrite link and get yourself a ticket! We’re limiting the ride to 25 people because several of the farm sites are very small and would have trouble accommodating many more people. So act fast, mark your calendar, get your ticket, and let’s go for a ride!

41. Lettuce

Let us talk about lettuce. It’s the backbone of many market gardens, and my business is no different. Lettuce is a good crop for small veg operations for at least four reasons:

  1. There are a lot of people who eat a lot of salads.

  2. Lettuce doesn’t require pruning or heavy fertilizing. It’s pretty easy to grow well (especially in the spring and fall).

  3. Food distributors carry boring, monotonous types of lettuce: romaine, iceberg, and butterhead if you’re lucky.

  4. Lettuce is highly perishable. If harvested at the wrong time of day, shipped across the country, or accidentally left out of the refrigerator for a half hour, shelf life and quality are greatly diminished.

early morning spray keeps our lettuce mix cool and hydrated

And businesses like Garden Variety Harvests are able to attack #2 and #3 pretty easily. My selection of lettuce seed is far from a monolith. There are five basic types of lettuce: loose leaf, romaine, crisphead, butterhead, and stem lettuce. But within each type there are oodles of individual specimens. One popular seed supplier who goes by a boy’s name that starts with J will happily sell over 140 lettuce varieties. This isn’t an endorsement of said seed supplier; just a frame of reference for how many distinct types are available of the stuff. With such a diverse assortment of options, it’s possible to find a handful of lettuces that are prepared to perform well in your micro-climate, and to bring all the color, flavor, and folly you need in an excellent spring mix.

Speckled Bibb in all her glory!

As of today, our production of lettuce has doubled compared to last year. And it’s not hard to find customers and chefs that are ready to serve up and gobble down the product. I’m infinitely better at growing it over last year, too. We’re getting second and third cuts from our lettuce beds, whereas last year single cuts were the standard. I’ve settled on a few varieties I really love. The star of our spring mix is the Speckled Bibb, a heat tolerant variety with a randomized splatter of color down the heart of the leaf. Tango and Jericho are my favorite green varieties: one is frilly and wild, the other is a reserved, heat-loving baby romaine. I also plant a lot of Red Oak Leaf, which seems to turn a deeper color in stressful conditions, but never succumbs to transplant shock. I’m also getting ready to experiment with a summer lettuce called Muir, which I’ve heard many southern vegetable growers rave about.

When it comes to plant nutrition, all you need to grow a good head of lettuce is a wee bit of nitrogen. It’s not a heavy feeder at all, which opens up some interesting opportunities for inter-planting. Internet resources will suggest companion planting with chives or garlic to repel aphids, or beans and peas to supply a boost of nitrogen in degraded soils. Just last week, I teamed up lettuce and my other favorite crop, okra (see blog 33) , in a bed to see how they play together. My thinking is that by the time the lettuce is ready for it’s first cut, the okra will have reached about 2 feet tall. After that, I’m hoping the broad leafs of the tall okra plants will give the lettuce enough shade to get a second cut in mid-summer.

One of our young customers gave us tokens of appreciation last week

One other way I’m trying to extend our production of lettuce into the heat of the southern summer is by using shadecloth. By cutting the sun by 40%, I hope the lettuce doesn’t experience tip-burn or begin to bolt because of the relentless swelter. Only time will tell whether this works in our context, but I got the ideas from a couple other farmers in Tennessee and Arizona who produce hundreds of pounds of lettuce a week in locales even less forgiving than SW Virginia. If they can do it, I’m sure we can find a way to keep the spring mix flowing through the summer!

Our spring mix is in perfect form for the Grandin Village Farmers market tomorrow morning. Come on by and get a bag while supplies last!

Get in on some excellent salads at Grandin Village Farmers Market every Saturday from 8am to 12noon!