Hunting Hornworms on Tomato Plants

Tobacco Hornworm eating a tomato plant
Photo Pam Dawling

Perhaps you also have hornworms eating your tomato plants? The upper leaves stripped to stems, the fruit munched, and big fat caterpillars getting bigger and fatter? Ours are tobacco hornworms, not tomato hornworms, but both are bad news. Fifty years ago, the Twin Oaks land was a tobacco farm. Tobacco hornworms have a red (not black) horn, and diagonal white lines, not arrowhead vees.

Outdoors our hornworms often get parasitized by a tiny braconid wasp whose larvae develop white rice-grain-like cocoons sticking out of the back of the hornworm. But the parasitic wasps don’t usually fly into the hoophouse, so we have to provide the pest control ourselves. We could prevent the night-flying hornworm-mother Carolina sphinx moth or  Tobacco hawk moth from entering our hoophuse by closing it up every night, but we don’t want to do that, as it means we have to reliably open it every morning before it gets too hot.

Hornworms strip the upper tomato leaves until only stems remain.
Photo Pam Dawling

When I find these beasties, I pull them off the plants (it can take quite a tug, their legs are strong), drop them on the ground and stomp on them. They can grow to be 4″ caterpillars. One day when I’d finished my safari along the first tomato bed and was working my way along the back of the second bed, I saw a cardinal fly in twice and fly off with a dead hornworm in its beak. I guess they can’t tackle live ones. (If only . . .)  I’m intrigued by how they knew I had provided dinner. Did they smell the hornworms? Or see the dead ones on the path? Sight seems more likely to me than smell.

So, why are these big caterpillars hard to find? You might imagine such big worms with such vivid stripes would be easy to see, but not so. They are, of course, the exact same shade of green as tomato leaves. Curled tomato leaves can look remarkably similar to hornworms. The stripes mimic the veins on the undersides of the leaves.

Tomato plant badly damaged by hornworms
Photo Pam Dawling

I do my hornworm hunting when it’s warm but not too hot, on the theory that then the caterpillars are more likely to be active, rather than snoozing in a sheltered spot. I walk along the row looking for damaged leaves. When I find some, I gaze at the area, looking for discrepancies in the pattern – bare stems with lumps on them. Usually the caterpillars are on the underside of a chewed stem, and often (but not always) they have their heads raised as in my second photo.

If I’m looking at damaged young leaves I’m pretty confidant that there’s a hornworm somewhere in the vicinity. If there are newer leaves that are intact, it might mean there was a hornworm, but it’s been removed already. Another sign that a hornworm is nearby is what safari hunters call fresh spoor – caterpillar poop. Hornworm poop looks like miniature brown pineapples or grenades (use whichever comparison you are more familiar with.)

Hornworm poop on tomato leaf.
Out-of-focus photo Pam Dawling

If I see damaged fruit, I redouble my efforts to find the culprit.

Tomato fruit damaged by hornworm
Photo Pam Dawling

If I still can’t see the worm, I sway a bit from side to side, viewing the plants from various perspectives. Sometimes I scrunch down a bit, so that the top of the plant is back-lit – that helps. Hunt frequently, every day or two. Knowing the signs of hornworm presence can save you time looking high and low. Instead you focus your attention on where you are most likely to find them.

Asian Greens for July: Maruba Santoh, plus sowings for fall

Young Maruba Santoh plants
Photo by Ethan Hirsh

In June I told you about Tokyo Bekana, a light green tender-leaved, white-stemmed green which can be cooked, or used as a substitute for lettuce in hot weather. Because summer in Virginia is a hard time for leafy greens, July’s Asian green is very similar – Maruba Santoh. Maruba Santoh has smoother, wavy, less ruffled leaves than Tokyo Bekana.

To show you I’m not being a slouch, I’ll include some pointers on sowing Asian greens for fall, because now is the time – in our climate at least. Here’s what one of my favorite seed suppliers, Fedco Seeds has to say:

Maruba Santoh (35 days) Brassica rapa (pekinensis group) Open pollinated. With Maruba you get four vegetables in one. The loose round vibrant chartreuse leaves provide a mild piquant mustardy flavor while the flat white stems impart a juicy crisp pac choy taste. High-end chefs like to use the blossoms. Market grower Scott Howell finds the flavor more subtle and complex than that of other greens and cuts Maruba small for his mesclun. Fairly bolt tolerant, so plant after the early spring flea beetle invasion subsides.

Fedco is in Maine and we’re in Virginia, so things are a little different. The information on their website about pests and diseases is good. Our worst brassica pests are harlequin bugs.

We grow our summer brassica seedlings and transplanted Asian greens under ProtekNet on hoops. On the Dubois link, study the Dimensions and Specifications tab, then download the brochure from that tab. Study the Descriptions tab – it tells you which insects are excluded by each size mesh. Be sure that you choose the right size mesh for the bugs you want to exclude. Flea beetles and thrips are small – you need a small mesh. Johnny’s is now marketing the close-mesh ProtekNet as  “Biothrips” insect netting, and they also have a comparison chart of rowcover and insect netting on their site.

Adolescent Maruba Santoh plants bunched for market.
Photo Kitazawa Seeds

Kitazawa Seeds also sells Maruba Santoh seed, under the Chinese Cabbage heading. Like most brassicas, Maruba Santoh does best in cool weather, although it is somewhat heat tolerant (or “warm tolerant” as we call it in Virginia.) It tolerates heat better than Napa Chinese cabbage does. To avoid bolting, keep the plants above 50F (10C) at all times, but particularly avoid prolonged spells below this “bolting trigger” temperature.

Maruba Santoh will germinate at temperatures between 50-85F. Seedlings emerge in just 3 days in summer. For summer use, direct sow, thin the rows for baby salad mix, then let the “heads” (it doesn’t actually head up) develop to full size (6-10″ tall) after about 35-40 days. Or transplant two week old starts. We tend to grow our plants quite big (12″ tall) and harvest by the leaf, several times over. Maruba Santoh makes a fine substitute for lettuce, and a tasty quick-cooking green.

To calculate sowing dates, work back 40 days from when you want to harvest, and sow more every week or two until you run into the fall slowdown temperatures, or you go back to eating lettuce in salads and cooking chard and kale. If you still have Maruba Santoh growing in the fall, know that it will be frost tolerant to 25°F (-4°C). No hurry.

Newly transplanted Maruba Santoh.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Maruba Santoh can also be grown at other times of year: spring and fall outdoors, winter in the hoophouse. The seedlings have large cotyledons and make good microgreens too.

Kitazawa’s  Culinary Tips include: Use in salad, sukiyaki, ohitashi, yosenabe, stir-fry, soup and pickling. Kim chi here we come! (If we had surplus.)


Next month I will talk more about Asian greens outdoors in fall. Now is the time to sow for fall harvests. We start in late June, and sow more in early July. We always make two sowings a week apart, for insurance.  We are aiming for greens to feed us in early fall, before the kale is ready, and into the winter, harvesting by the leaf. But Asian greens can be sown all the way up to two months before your first fall frost date. For us, that means August 14-20.  If you want to make sowings now, consider senposai, komatsuna, pak choy, tat soi, Yukina Savoy, and Chinese cabbage.


An insectary circle with borage and sunflower in a chard bed.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I have two posts on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog that I haven’t told you about yet. So if it’s too hot out, or it’s raining (don’t make me envious) seek shade and read more. The newer post is Insectaries: Grow Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects, and the previous one is Planting Leeks. 

Hoophouse tomato varieties

Tall tomatoes with beans and cucumbers in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse tomatoes are doing well this year. Apart from the determinate Glacier, they’ve reached the top of the stakes and as high as we can string-weave or pick. We transplanted them March 15, a month before our last frost date. We harvest each of our hoophouse beds every two days,alternating them to smooth supplies.We plan to harvest for ten weeks from May 25 till July 31, by which time our first outdoor planting is yielding well. In the South many of us grow only our early tomatoes in hoophouses, as outdoor crops produce abundantly once the weather warms. We harvest our outdoor tomatoes (sown 3/15) from July until frost, initially overlapping with our hoophouse earlies, then on their own.

Ken Dawson in Cedar Grove, NC, has a succession planting plan for outdoor tomatoes. He makes four field plantings at three week intervals. In cooler climates, because yields will be higher, it is more common to grow tomatoes in hoophouses whenever possible, and keep them growing for the whole season.

Glacier tomatoes in our hoophouse in late June.
Photo Pam Dawling

It is possible to grow successions of determinate tomatoes in a hoophouse, but any advantages are usually outweighed by the disadvantages of disease spread and the extra time plants spend before they reach production. In the past we grew a late hoophouse crop, to take us beyond the first frosts. We sowed June 18 and transplanted at a relatively young age (tomatoes grow quickly by that point of the year). We gave this up in favor of growing more leafy greens.

Each year I take notes on the varieties we have in the hoophouse, and often we run a taste test. I have also been gathering information from other growers, on which varieties do well for them. Before I get into talking about specific varieties, I want to say a bit about types of tomatoes.

Determinate Varieties

Varieties can be divided into two main growth types and then the exceptions. Determinates (bush tomatoes) are compact varieties that stop growing at a height of 2′-4′ (0.6-1.2 m). The number of stems, leaves and flowers is part of the genetic makeup of that variety. The number of leaves between one fruit cluster and the next decreases by one each time a cluster is produced, until the terminal cluster forms. No more leaves or flowers develop after that. The fruit ripens and the plant starts to die back. Harvest can be 1-3 months from start to finish. Because they are faster to mature than indeterminates, they are often chosen for early crops. Determinate varieties usually bear lightly the first third of the  harvest period, heavily the second, then lightly for the last third, so it is not very productive to plant crops so late that they don’t reach their second (main) month of production before frosts. Determinates need no pruning as the yield of fruit is inherently limited. Most need little staking, but some determinates are quite tall, and produce for quite a long season.

Tomato Mountain Magic in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fast-maturing Tomato Varieties

Currently Glacier (56d det red) is the only determinate we grow. We simply choose varieties for our early bed based on days to maturity, past experience and inspiring catalog write-ups! They have to be 71 days or fewer from transplant to maturity. We like Stupice (61d ind red), Mountain Magic (66d ind red), Garden Peach (71d ind yellow) and the very fast and delicious cherry Sun Gold (57d ind orange) and Five

Sun Gold cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Star Grape (62d red). We found out the hard way that growing too many cherries is not wise – they take a long time to harvest and when you compare yields it’s clear they don’t add up to much. We grow two plants each of Sun Gold and Five Star Grape, 6 each of Garden Peach and Mountain Magic, 13 Stupice and 16 Glacier. Very biased towards the earliest.

 

Indeterminate Varieties

Jubilee tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

We choose our favorite workhorses along with some unusual heirlooms for our second bed. Most heirlooms are indeterminate. We grow lots of Jubilee (80d ind orange) and Tropic (80d ind red). The just two or three each of the fun and interesting Green Zebra (76d ind green stripes on gold), Striped German (78d ind red/yellow), Amy’s Sugar Gem (75d ind red), Rebelski (75d ind red) and two each of two more cherries, Amy’s Apricot (75d ind apricot) and Black Cherry (70d ind purple-brown)

Green zebra tomato in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

Indeterminate varieties can continue to grow and produce more fruit as long as the weather is warm enough, and as long as they don’t get struck down by frost or disease. The number of leaf nodes between one cluster and the next remains the same all the way up the vine. Indeterminate tomatoes need substantial support. Pruning is not essential – whether or not to prune depends on your climate, the varieties you are growing and how long you plan to keep the plants for.

Amys Apricot cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Semi-determinate varieties

Semi-determinate tomato varieties are larger than determinate but smaller than indeterminate plants. Some seed suppliers just call them large determinates. These plants usually require staking.

Making Choices

If you are growing in a cold climate you will probably want to grow indeterminates in your hoophouse and keep them all season, as it takes a long time to grow a tomato plant. If you are growing in hot climates, you will probably only grow your earlies in your hoophouse and then grow a succession of outdoor tomato crops. If you grow where there are lots of tomato diseases, you will do better with succession planting than having all your eggs in one tomato basket. If your season is long enough for multiple plantings, you might choose to start with fast determinates to catch the early market.

More about Jamaica’s Source Farm Project

A bunch of bananas growing at face level outside my door on the path to the office at Source Farm, Jamaica.
Photo Pam Dawling

At last I got the photos from my Jamaica trip from my camera to the computer. I didn’t take many photos – as I said in my other Jamaica post, it rained most of the time. As you see in the photo above, bananas grow well, the land at Source Farm is hilly, the office is a repurposed and repainted shipping container

At the beginning of June the BBC visited Source Farm and made a podcast as part of the On Your Farm series, and called it Jamaica’s Organic Revolution.

You can listen to all 22 minutes of it for free, and hear the people I stayed with at Source Farm as well as Mr Brown, one of the farmers I met with. I can only link to the program, not embed it, so click the link below

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08skyk0

Source – BBC News

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the voices of my new friends, and being reminded of the farm and the countryside.

Viewing my photos reminded me also of the “domestic wildlife.” First the friendly ones:

Gecko or “Croaking Lizard” on my wall at Source Farm
Photo Pam Dawling

Then the creepy crawlies, the two inch millipedes that were everywhere. You have to be careful not to crush them, because the liquid inside them can cause burns. I never had that problem, and scooped them up by the handful to throw outside each night, only to find them back inside by morning. I concluded that each house had its allotment of millipedes and it was best to ignore them!

Millipede and electric outlet in my room at Source Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Things I noticed and learned from the farmers about growing crops in the tropics have led me to think more about how plants respond to temperature and day-length, and I want to learn more about this when I have time. As I said in my Asian Greens for June post:

“Last month I was in Jamaica and saw how they can grow kale in very hot weather. “

I had a comment from a reader about successfully growing Joy Choi in hot summers as well as Tokyo bekana. It’s revelation to me that at least some brassicas can grow in hot weather as long as the temperature never drops below 50°F (10°C), which triggers bolting.

Swiss chard I take for granted as a summer leafy green – it’s a biennial and usually won’t bolt until the second year. The Ruby chard seems the most prone to bolting. We’ve given up that one in favor of Bright Lights, as well as Fordhook Giant green chard. Chard is popular in Jamaica too.

Fordhook Giant green chard.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

A green which is not common here in the US, but is very popular in Jamaica is callaloo, which is a type of amaranth. I enjoyed eating it at Source Farm. I tried growing it in Virginia one year, when I was researching summer cooking greens in spring 2015 for an article in Growing for Market. Here’s what I said then (when I maybe misspelled callaloo):

Vegetable amaranth,  Amaranthus species.

In spring use the young leaves for salad. Larger leaves make tender and nutritious cooked greens. Calaloo is an amaranth (but sometimes other crops have this name), used to make a green Caribbean stew. Joseph’s Coat, Amaranthus tricolor, is an eye-catching plant with red, green, and yellow leaves that may also include patches of pink, bronze, purple and brown. This tropical plant thrives in really hot weather. It is a huge plant, 4-6’ tall. Carol Deppe in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening recommends All Red for a spectacularly colorful leaf, especially for salads, and Green Calaloo and Burgundy for fast-growing greens. She reports they all taste the same to her raw, and all taste the same when cooked. So choose by preferred color and rate of growth.

Seeds should be started indoors in spring, and transplanted once all chance of frost has passed, when it is time to plant corn. Alternatively, broadcast with aim of getting plants 4” apart. Each time the plants reach 12” tall, harvest the top 8”. Pinch back often to push out new leaves and prevent reseeding (it can become a weed problem). If your farm has lots of amaranth weeds, you won’t want to risk adding another. Also, if weed amaranths are eaten by the striped fleabeetles, your cultivated amaranths will also suffer. (Those are the two reasons we gave up on them.)

William Woys Weaver (Saladings, Warm Weather, Mother Earth News) is a fan of ‘Bliton’ or ‘Horsetooth Amaranth’, Amaranthus lividus (Amaranthus viridis). He reports that it is the easiest and most prolific of summer greens. Seed should be started indoors, except in the South. Transplant seedlings when it’s warm enough to plant beans (Frequent advice for many of these hot weather greens). Alternatively, broadcast where it is to grow after all danger of frost is past. Thin the seedlings for salads or harvest plants about 12” tall and cook like spinach. When the plant is older, the stems get too tough, and then only the leaves and new shoots should be used. In parts of the South, it has become a weed – “Grow responsibly,” as Barbara Pleasant says in her Mother Earth News blogpost Warm Weather Spinach Alternatives.

Green Amaranth/Calaloo
Photo Baker Creek Seeds

 

 

Asian Greens for June: Tokyo Bekana

Bird’s eye view of Tokyo bekana. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Lettuce is hard to grow in summer in our Virginia climate. Tokyo bekana (Brassica rapa chinensis) can be used as an alternative. It won’t get bitter in hot weather. Because it is fast-growing, you can sow it when you realize a lettuce shortage is looming – it grows faster than lettuce, and bigger than most lettuce varieties, so you can make up for lost time.

Tokyo bekana leaves
Photo The Funny Farm

Or, once you’ve tried it, you might decide to plan for Tokyo bekana in the summer rather than lettuce. The flavor is very mild, and most people don’t notice they aren’t eating lettuce. The texture of the white stems is very crunchy and juicy, and the frilly leaves are sweet and tender.The color of the leaves is chartreuse: a light bright lime green. Here is a delicious description of the flavor from Specialty Produce in San Diego, CA.

Tokyo Bekana cabbage is succulent with mild pepper nuances and a melting quality unique to all cabbage varieties.

I haven’t got the figures for nutritional content just now, but I think it’s got to be more nutritious than lettuce. Brassicas generally have more lots of antioxidants than lettuce, for example.

Tokyo Bekana was first cultivated in Japan and is a descendant of Chinese loose-heading celery cabbages (pe tsai). It is widely grown in rural Japan as well as in ex-pat Asian farming communities worldwide.

To grow Tokyo bekana for summer salads

We sow 4/30 – 6/15 and transplant at 2 weeks old. Germination at temperatures of 50-85°F is quick and reliable. Growth is fast. It can be harvested at any stage from microgreens to full-size “heads” – it never actually heads up, as a Napa Chinese cabbage does, but forms a loose head of big frilly leaves about 45 days after sowing.

Tokyo bekana Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Tokyo bekana transplants.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Sowing

Sow the seed thinly (3 seeds per inch) in a nursery seed bed. Or sow in pots or plug flats depending on the scale of production you need. Cover to keep bugs off, and transplant when there are 3 or 4 true leaves on each plant. We transplant 4 rows in a 48″ wide bed, but they could be a little closer.

Or you could direct sow  3 or 4 rows per bed. Make individual shallow furrows 1/4-1/2″ deep.

For baby salad greens, sow in 3″ wide bands, or broadcast. Harvest these by cutting when seedlings are 3-4″ tall.

One key to growing delicious Asian greens is to treat hem well: fertile soil, plenty of water, keep the bugs off. 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week, 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather.

A bed of Tokyo bekana
Photo The Funny Farm

You may be thinking “Oh it’s sure to bolt in hot weather!” But if the temperature remains above 50°F (10°C) it will not bolt if treated fairly. Of course, if you don’t water, or don’t harvest when it’s ready, it will bolt. I’ve been slow to learn what’s important. Years ago an Atlanta grower told me he grew arugula all summer in his hoophouse. It was hard for me to understand how that was possible. Last month I was in Jamaica and saw how they can grow kale in very hot weather. Any prolonged dip to 50°F (10°C) triggers bolting. It just happens that in my climate the bolt-triggering temperature happens in many months (but not in June, July, August!)

Harvest

Bunched Tokyo bekana Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Harvest Tokyo bekana at any stage: Young baby leaves for salad mix after 25 days, or the whole plant when fully mature at 10-12″ tall (45 days). You can harvest individual leaves and keep coming back for more. Juvenile plants can be cut and bunched for market. Once you have lots you can cut the whole plant. Full size plants weigh up to 1.25 lbs. each.

Tokyo bekana can also be sauteed like bok choy, if you find it grows extremely successfully! I have eaten sauteed lettuce, so I don’t want you lettuce lovers writing in to inform me that’s possible too. I didn’t think much of sauteed lettuce, but I do like sauteed Tokyo bekana. Cooked it pairs well with poultry,  pork, sausage,  fish, legumes, garlic, cream sauces, cheese, mushrooms, bulb fennel, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados, grapefruit, lemon,  peaches and cherries.

More about Tokyo bekana

It is an open pollinated heirloom variety so the seeds can be saved and replanted.

It can be grown in the fall and spring outdoors, and in the winter hoophouse in our climate. It has good frost tolerance, down to around 25°F (-4°C), perhaps even 15ºF (-9ºC) with thick rowcover.

Maruba Santoh is similar – more about that one next month.

 

 

 

Asian Greens Slide Show, Crops in our Hoophouse

I’ve started my year of monthly posts about Asian greens with one about senposai and at the Mother Earth News Fair in Vermont this past weekend, I presented my slide show on Asian Greens, which is here for those who missed it. Click the diagonal arrow symbol to get the full screen version.

Today, back on the farm, I spent the morning in the hoophouse. I harvested 4 buckets of cucumbers from one 90′ bed of Spacemaster bush cucumbers. We harvested 2 buckets two days ago, and today they have really taken off!

Flowering cucumbers in our hoophouse May 25. Photo by Alexis Yamashita

I also harvested 3 gallons of green beans – we planted Strike, a very upright variety. We find that bush beans tend to sprawl in the hoophouse, and the varieties that do well for us outside (Provider and Bush Blue Lake, from Fedco Seeds), grow straggly inside and the beans curve. It’s probably because the shadecloth on the hoophouse is too dark for beans.

Strike beans in our hoophouse. See the big shade cloth over the hoophouse.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

The Gentry yellow squash are doing very well. I’ll harvest those tomorrow (we’re alternating cucumber and squash harvest days currently)

Gentry yellow squash in our hooophouse.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

The other crops in our hoophouse now are peppers (we’ve had a handful of green bells). two beds of tomatoes that have been struggling with aphids and sooty mold, and some Iron and Clay cowpeas as cover crops. See this sad picture of the aphids and sooty mold:

Tomato plant with aphids and sooty mold.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

Aphids excrete a sweet liquid called honeydew. In warm moist conditions this sugary substance grows a black mold on every deposit. This is called sooty mold. We have been dealing with it by jet-washing some of the tomatoes every sunny day, and we are winning. The photo above was specially chosen to demonstrate the problem – it’s not a crop to be proud of at this point! We use a brass jet-spray nozzle on a hose and wash them in the middle of the day, so the leaves can dry quickly – we don’t want any more fungal tomato diseases moving in!

Upcoming events, Growing for Market article, Organic Broadcaster

Harvesting Zephyr yellow squash.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Starting with what’s being harvested now – squash and zucchini are coming in nicely. The hoophouse Gentry yellow squash (chosen for being fast-maturing) is coming in by the bucketload, and the outdoor yellow squash and zucchini have started producing.


I’m off to Burlington, Vermont this weekend, for the Mother Earth News Fair. I’m giving two workshops:

Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables,on Saturday 6/10 at 11 am on the Yanmar Sustainability Stage, immediately followed by book-signing at the Mother Earth News Bookstore noon- 12.30.

Producing Asian Greens on Sunday  6/11 at 3.30 pm on the Heirloom Gardener Stage.

I’m also doing demonstrations of tomato string-weaving at the New Society Publishers booth 2611, near the Mother Earth News Stage (not the Bookstore this time), at 10 – 10.30 am and 3-3.30 pm on Saturday and 10 -10.30 am, 11- 11.30 am and 2- 2.30 pm on Sunday. Check out my Events page to see the pink sparkly tinsel tomato plant models I use!


At the Heritage Harvest Festival near Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday September 8 (the Premium Workshops before the main Festival), I’m presenting on Growing Sweet Potatoes at 3.30-4.30 in classroom 7, followed by book-signing at the Monticello Bookshop.


The June/July summer issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, and includes my article on Hoophouse soil salt buildup. This is an issue we have been dealing with – we see white deposits on the soil. I did a lot of research and found ways to water the salts back down deep in the soil profile. I also gathered information on how to measure and monitor salinity, and how to understand the test results and their different testing methods and different units of measure. I learned about salt tolerance of different crops, the plant symptoms of excess salinity, and how to prevent the problem in future. This topic is rising in importance as more people use hoophouses with drip irrigation systems. We were blithely ignorant for our first several years of hoophopuse use, as salinity takes a few years to really develop, and there wasn’t much information available.

I’m also looking forward to reading the other articles, especially Summer lettuce lessons from Southern growers by Jesse Frost. There are some great photos of beds covered with hoops and shade-cloth, which show a good system. I always appreciate articles written for southern growers, which can be in short supply.

Daisy Fair in Utah’s zone 5 has written about moveable tunnels with in-ground hydronic heat. So there’s information for cold climates too. Sam Hitchcock Tilton has an article with tips learned from Dutch and Swiss farmers. Robert Hadad advises on careful monitoring of costs of production in order to actually make a living from farming. The flower growing article in this issue is from Debra Prinzing and is about American Flowers Week, a chance to highlight American-grown flowers with some light-hearted fun photos.


The May/June Organic Broadcaster just arrived in its paper format – I’ve had the digital one for a while. Good thing I’ve got that long car ride to Vermont this weekend to catch up on my farming reading!

The front page story this time is about Kansas farmers, Tim and Michael Raile, transitioning thousands of dryland (non-irrigated) acres to Organic steadily over the next 5 or 6 years. Dryland farming focuses on moisture retention. The Railes grow a wheat/corn/
sunflower/milo (grain sorghum)/fallow rotation. They are also trialing some ancient grains.

Organic production in the US is not meeting demand, and organic imports are increasing, including organic soy and feed corn, not just bananas and coffee. More farmers want to produce Organic poultry, eggs, milk and meat. And so they are looking for Organic feed at an affordable price. This is often imported, which raises issues about how Organic Standards vary from one country to another, and the bigger issue of sustainability – not always the same as Organic! Does it really make sense to ship in grains to feed livestock?

Harriet Behar writes about the true meaning of Organic and overall methods of production. It’s not just about following rules on allowed inputs and materials – it’s a whole approach to how we treat the soil, our plants and livestock.

Hannah Philips and Brad Heins share research on how cover crop choices can influence the fatty acids and meat of dairy steers. Jody Padgham writes about CSAs responding to competition and decreasing membership by offering more options on shares and delivery. Gone are the days of “One box, one day, one price” CSAs. Numerous modifications of the basic CSA model have sprung up to better fit the diverse needs of customers (members). Kristen McPhee writes about the Vermont Herb Growers  Cooperative, which buys from various small-scale growers and aggregates orders to larger buyers. Other topics covered include lessons learned from Hawaii’s GMO controversy, paying for end-of-life care without losing your farm, and many short items and classified ads. As always, a newspaper packed with information.


And by the way, we’re also picking blueberries – ah! heaven!

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program

 

I’m back from Jamaica, compiling my trip report. I went as a volunteer with a farmer-to-farmer training project for 9 days (plus two travel days). I was a volunteer with the FLORIDA ASSOCIATION FOR VOLUNTEER ACTION IN THE CARIBBEAN AND THE AMERICAS (FAVACA), funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) From the American People established by John F Kennedy in 1961. USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. One of the FAVACA programs is the Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program.

For those who don’t know Jamaica at all, let’s start with a map of the island, which is south of Cuba.

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I was hosted by the Source Farm Ecovillage, Johns Town, St Thomas Parish, Jamaica. Here’s a more detailed map with St Thomas parish colored in pink. The Source Farm is east of Morant Bay, very near the coast.

The Source Farm Foundation and Learning Village is a multi-cultural, inter-generational eco-village, located in Johns Town, in the parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica.

“Our ecological mission and vision is to respect natural life, its systems and processes – preserving wildlife and botanical habitat, and creating a life-style that regenerates, rather than diminishes the integrity of the source farm environment.”

Here is a 2014 site map, showing roughly what buildings are there, and where the gardens are located. Actually the gardens have expanded quite a bit since this map was drawn.

I stayed in Earthbag 1, a house built of stacked bags of bauxitic soil with cement, rendered over with cement, giving an adobe effect. The structure stayed fairly cool. The windows had no glass, but insect screens and wood louvered shutters. I’ve never actually had a house to myself before, even a small one like this!

The newer houses in the eco-village are monolithic concrete domes, which hold up very well against hurricanes, earthquakes and termites. Jamaica is rich in marl (lime) and other minerals, and there is a cement works near Kingston. Because many other homes on the island are built from concrete block covered with cement rendering, there are many workers skilled in rendering, who can quickly adapt to dome houses.

I got to taste many kinds of mango, passion fruit, star fruit, star apple, ackee, bammy (cassava flatbread), yam, breadfruit, callalloo (amaranth leaves) and meringa seeds, as well as foods I was already familiar with. I had an especially lovely supper with Nicola and Julia, of snapper with bammy and festival (described by April Jackson on The Yummy Truth as a Jamaican savory beignet made with cornmeal), and Red Stripe beer at Fish Cove Restaurant by the ocean.

Festival, bammy and fish in Jamaica.
Photo https://theyummytruth.wordpress.com/tag/jamaican-fried-fish/

What is on the Farm?

Photo courtesy of
The Source Farm

My teaching work was organized by the people at Source Farm and included the whole group of farmers in JSFEP. The schedule included several farm visits, but unfortunately it rained very hard for four or five days (this was meant to be the dry season!) and many areas were flooded. One farmer told me that the biggest challenges to farming in Jamaica are climate change and theft. Both are serious. The heavy rains I experienced showed how much damage unusual weather can cause. At one farm, where a co-operative onion-growing project was underway, one farmer got trapped by rising waters and had to be helped by two other farmers to swim and wade through the wild waters. After that, the farmers in the group had to take turns to guard the place so that the drip irrigation equipment didn’t get stolen. Another farmer told me about losing an entire crop of sweet potatoes one night – someone dug up the whole lot. The thefts, of course, are related to poverty and desperation in some cases, and a culture where each person has to take what they need as there is little in the way of government support. And a history of colonialism with sugar cane and banana cash crops, followed by a crashing economy.

The roads are in poor shape and in rural areas people rely on calling taxis to get from one place to another. Everyone needs a phone to live this way, and I saw some very battered up phones and chargers carefully repaired and kept running. Arranging a meeting time requires a flexible attitude about timeliness.

The farmers were looking at increasing production, planning planting quantities, scheduling succession plantings, and considering new crops. I met one-on-one with a few farmers, and I did some research into the possibilities of growing asparagus and garlic in the tropics, for a couple of them. I had to get my head round the idea of planting a sequence of three crops each needing four months. No winter cover crop cycle. Cover crops are very different from ours. Some overlap – sorghum-sudangrass, sunn-hemp. But no place for winter cereals! The principle of feeding the soil stays the same, using legumes to add nitrogen, bulky cover crops to smother weeds and add biomass.

I was teaching vegetable crop planning, crop rotations, and scheduling co-operative harvests to help the farmers double their presence at the Ujima Natural Farmers Market  to every Saturday rather than very other Saturday, starting in June. The demand for sustainably grown fresh local produce exists, and farmers are interested in learning to boost production.

On the second Saturday I was there, I gave a workshop on crop planning, to 22 farmers, and we got some lively discussion going, as they offered each other tips, and diagnosed some diseased carrots (looked like nematodes to me).

I treasure the time I spent in Jamaica, even though it wasn’t all sunshine and mangoes. I met many wonderful farmers and enjoyed my stay in the Source ecovillage, which reminded me somewhat of Twin Oaks Community, where I live in Virginia.

 

 

 

 

Asian Greens in May: Senposai outdoors

A bed of senposai outdoors in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the first of what will be a year of monthly posts about different Asian greens.

Most Asian greens are chancy outdoors in the spring here in central Virginia, because our springs are short, escalating from cold weather to hot in not much time, and most Asian greens bolt as soon as it heats up. Senposai is the only one that is worthwhile for us to plant outdoors in spring. It grows quickly into a big plant producing large, round, mid-green leaves. Senposai is cold tolerant down to 12°F (-11°C) once hardened off, and also warm-tolerant (I won’t say heat-tolerant).

Senposai, which translates as Thousand Wonder Vegetable, is a cross between komatsuna and regular cabbage.

Spotting senposai seedlings in the greenhouse in early spring.
Photo Wren Vile

We start the seedlings in the greenhouse, sowing senposai February 7, the same date as our main spring cabbages. We spot out the seedlings into 4″ deep flats, 40 in a 12 x 24″ flat, as shown in the photo above. When the transplants reach a good size, we harden them off in the cold frame for two weeks, ready to plant out March 18 (at five to six weeks old).

We transplant senposai in 3 rows per 4 ft bed, with plants 18″ apart in the rows. Yes, they will grow into big plants.You could transplant at anywhere between 12″–18″ (30–45 cm) spacing, using the closer spacing if you will harvest often and prefer smaller leaves. When transplanting we use rowcover, but only keep it on the senposai until early April, when we take it away to use it on the newly planted broccoli instead.

Senposai is very fast growing. In the fall, senposai takes only 40 days to mature, but this early spring sowing takes 57 days. We can start harvesting senposai April 5 (almost as soon as we remove the rowcovers!) and continue till late May, when it starts bolting a week or two before the spring kale and collards.

A young senposai transplant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Because senposai grows fast, it is very productive. It is usually harvested leaf by leaf,simply snapping off the bigger leaves.  “8 for later” is our mantra to prevent over-harvesting of leafy greens – we encourage new people to count the leaves from the center out and take those in excess of 8 (or we might take fewer). After a while of counting, it becomes second nature to recognize what is a sustainable number of leaves to save for future harvests.

Senposai is tender, easy and quick to cook, much quicker than collards. It has a delicious sweet cabbagey flavor, and tender texture. It can be stir-fried, stir-braised, steamed and even eaten raw, by the fairly dedicated salad-lover.

Because it is fast-growing, senposai can be a good Plan B vegetable, to plant as a fast-growing substitute for cabbage or kale if something goes wrong with your original planting plans. We did this one spring when we got poor germination of cabbage.

Senposai also does well planted outdoors in the fall, and over the winter in our hoophouse, so it might reappear later in the year in this series of blogposts.

We buy seed from Fedco Seeds (who recommend it for okonamiyaki  savory pancakes). “Customers buy it once because it looks absolutely stunning, then they buy it again because it is extremely delicious. Absurdly productive and easy to grow,” raves John Eisenstein of Port Royal, PA, in the Fedco catalog.

Seed is also available from Kitazawa Seeds in California who say: “This is an excellent vegetable for soup, salad, pickling, stir-fry, ohitashi, sukiyaki, and yosenabe,” and Evergreen Seeds. 

 

Year Round Lettuce

I’ve now completed 12 monthly posts about suitable lettuce varieties and growing techniques. You can see these by clicking the Lettuce Varieties Category tab, but you can also get the overview here. They run from May to April because that’s how I wrote them. Click the name of the month to view the original post.

Sword Leaf Lettuce
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

May: Sword leaf lettuce

Star Fighter lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June: Starfighter: Lettuce Variety of the Month

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bed of young Green Forest lettuce.
Photo by Wren Vile

July: Green Forest – Lettuce variety for early July

Pablo Batavian lettuce
Photo Nina Gentle

August:Batavian lettuces for August

Freckles lettuce is a cheering sight in spring or fall.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

September: Lettuce in September,

Young lettuce plants in greenhouse beds in October. Photo by Bridget Aleshire

October: Lettuce growing in October

Starfighter and Red Salad Bowl lettuce in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

November: Lettuce in November

Rouge d’Hiver hardy romaine lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

December: Lettuce in December

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newly germinated lettuce seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

January: Lettuce varieties for January, new year, fresh start

Reliable Red Salad Bowl lettuce, one of our standbys.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Extra: Lettuce Varieties for 2017

Baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse in winter.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

February: Lettuce in February

Bronze Arrow lettuce is a beautiful and tasty early spring variety.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

March: Lettuce for March and all year

April: Lettuce in April

Spring lettuce bed.
Photo Wren Vile