Next up on our summer greens series, we’re heading to hot and humid Selmer, Tennessee, to talk to farmer Ray Tyler of Rosecreek Farms.
Ray produces 300 pounds of greens a week in the summer, and he’s planning to up his production to 500 pounds.
Rosecreek mostly grows salad mix, arugula, spicy mustard mix, and baby red Russian kale. They also grow green sweet-crisp varieties—which they love—but they can’t say the same for their restaurant accounts since their chefs are more used to the softer-textured lettuces.
The varieties that are dependable and grow really well in the South in the middle of summer are Cherokee and Muir lettuce. These stay dense and beautiful in August, even when the weather is roasting and the ground is on fire.
In the cooler months, Salanova lettuce is a big hit, but it doesn’t perform well in the summer, though they make it a point to grow it in both seasons since no one else does; this keeps their clients and pays their bills.
That said, they’re still experimenting with different lettuce varieties and growing methods to find the best way to produce the best greens all summer long.
Ray started mixing natural salad mix in with Salanova—an economical move since the salad mix seed is cheaper and they get the same yield as their Salanova. The salad mix also gives the buttery texture that chefs love.
The first thing Ray realized once the weather grew hot and humid his first summer farming was the drastic decline in the quality of his Salanova lettuce. It didn’t look as good, and the yield dropped 50 percent. He immediately set up shade cloth and got overhead irrigation going.
Ray sets his overhead irrigation to go off three times a day for fifteen minutes each time, making a note of watering once at 10 o’clock in the evening to make sure the bed, the soil, and the plants cool off. In Ray’s experience, cooling the temperature at night plays a huge role in keeping the lettuce from turning bitter.
Ray also notes how important it is to not overwater. Watering multiple times a day on a rainy or even overcast day can kill plants just as easily as too much sunlight can. So when it rains, he implements a one- to three-day delay, depending on how much it rains. Paying attention to the weather is key.
In the cooler months, Ray at first tried watering using overhead irrigation and drip tape at the same time, only to find out that only using one or the other worked fine.
Heat and Shade Cloth
The first 10 to 15 days is the most crucial time for making sure lettuce survives the summer heat. This is why Rosecreek puts shade cloth over its lettuce for the first one to two weeks as the plants establish themselves. They also found that if they left the shade cloth on longer than two weeks, the lettuce heads wouldn’t fill out well.
What’s interesting is that Ray found that acclimating their lettuce transplants and putting them outside in the direct sun helps in the hardening-off process—just like hardening off tomato plants in the early spring.
For hoops and shade cloth, Rosecreek deploys wire hoops with 50 percent shade cloth fastened onto the hoops with clothes pins. For bigger, half-inch EMT conduit hoops, they use conduit clips they purchased from Johnny’s.
The Rosecreek crew waters beds well before planting into them in the early mornings. Once the transplants are in the ground, they put up the shade cloth and set up their overhead irrigation and run the water for about 30 minutes. The next watering then comes in the afternoon.
In the next two weeks, they pay close attention to how the lettuce is faring and whether or not it’s getting too much or not enough water. After the initial two weeks, Ray says that it becomes almost impossible to kill the lettuce.
There was a time when Ray harvested lettuce at four in the afternoon, when it was wilted. He was able to “revive” it by placing it in cold water, but he felt like the quality and nutrients were just not the same as when he harvested lettuce in the mornings. This is why he now makes it a point to finish harvesting greens by 8 a.m.
Cutting in the mornings leaves the lettuce very dense and very crisp, and maintaining that freshness is much easier. In fact, customers tell them that their lettuce lasted three weeks in the summertime.
Their freshly harvested lettuce goes straight to the walk-in cooler to be washed the next day. The farm’s processing shed has an AC unit to make sure that the temperature is cool even when the greens are exposed as they’re washed, dried, and spun.
The Road to Salad King
If you ask farmers and consumers in Ray’s area, they’ll tell you that Ray is their Salad King. He’s got growing greens in the summertime down and figured out. But if you ask Ray himself, he’ll tell you that he and his farm still have a long way to go.
Sure, they have a reputation of being a salad farm, but there are still things they need to improve, like timing and keeping their yields consistent. Despite that, they’re having a great time growing and improving their practices.
Ray firmly believes that small farms in the South can grow summer salad. And summer greens can help you get your foot in the door of the local-food economy. It’s hard work, but growing greens in the summer can really help pay bills at a time when cash is hard to come by.
You can learn more about grower Ray Tyler via our podcast with him here.
Also visit Rosecreek Farms on Instagram.
Read more in the series on growing summer greens.
And you can find all our market gardening podcasts at Farm Small, Farm Smart—the longest-running podcast on market gardening in the world.