2023-2024 Vegetable Growing Conference Tips 4

 

Alkindus lettuce from High Mowing Seeds

This is the last of my series on tips I learned at sustainable farming conferences the past winter. The sessions reported on here were at PASA.

Harvesting Techniques for Small and Medium Scale Farms

This was presented by Julie Henninger and Andy Russell of Goodkeeper Farm in Gardners, PA. They run a Full Diet CSA, with 7.5 acres of vegetables including five high tunnels and outdoor vegetables, and turkeys, cows and pigs. Their well-organized workshop covered their Top Crops (head lettuce, baby greens, carrots, bunched greens and roots); Pre-Harvest Prep (check list, harvest pouch, rubber bands, sharp knives, bins, other equipment); Techniques; Post-Harvest Work; Pitfalls to Avoid and Meet the Farmers.

For a harvesting pouch they use a nailbag that clips on the waistband, to carry their knives and rubber bands. For harvesting crops, they recommend the Hoss harvest bag. Both leave both hands free for picking.

Hoss Harvesting Satchel leaves hands free.

Goodkeeper Farm practices flaming or tarping to deal with weeds before they become a threat to their crops. All their lettuce is transplanted using a paperpot transplanter. This Japanese designed implement is imported to the US and is now also being made in the US. They favor the red butterhead Alkindus lettuce. See photo above.

For carrots, they grow 6 rows on a 30” bed, spaced as 3 pairs of rows with 2” between the pair. As they harvest the carrots by hand, they broadcast rye, to get the cover crop established as early as possible, and keep live roots in the ground for the most time. They have made a carrot washer from a cement mixer, reducing the size of the belt to slow the machine down. See Root Washers for Produce Farms.

Root Washers for Produce Farms, from University of Vermont Extension Ag Engineering

Top of their tips for techniques is to ensure each person masters the tasks first, limiting distractions. A strong role model demonstrates the technique and the expected pace. After getting those two aspects as second nature, the learner can start to have conversations and other distractions.

In the Pitfalls to Avoid, they list damaging the crops while harvesting, overloading harvest bins, using the wrong harvest gear, failing to invest in good appropriate equipment, dull cutting tools, and actions such as gathering different size bunches, that require re-bunching – try not to need to touch the crops again after harvesting!

Winter Market Gardening

by Catherine Sylvestre, the farm manager at Ferme de Quatre Temps, in Quebec, and co-author (with Jean-Martin Fortier) of the book Winter Market Gardener. Read my review here.

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

Catherine gave both an introductory presentation and an advanced session with an excellent handout. At their zone 5b teaching farm, they have 27,000 sq ft of sheltered growing: 4 high tunnels, 3 greenhouses and one multi-bay shelter. They offer a two year program for students wanting to learn sustainable farming. They close for a two week break over the winter holidays, and plan their crops to be ready for harvest either side of that break. They need to sow in June for harvests before the break. They have five Principles of Winter Gardening:

  1. Use simple shelters, plastic-covered tunnels, for best profitability
  2. Add minimal heating. By adding 3 Celsius degrees (5.4 F degrees), they double their yields, and avoid using rowcover. Evening out the temperature between day and night reduces stress on the plants. Nutrients are more active if the soil is warmer.
  3. Increase the cold tolerance of the crops. This increases the sugars in the cells, making them more cold-tolerant from then on. Increase the airflow and expose plants to cold temperatures. They start this hardening off at the first frosts, and find that 7-10 days of chilling is needed to create a lasting result.
  4. Be aware that light is the limiting factor (especially for spinach). Their light in November is only one quarter of what they get in August. They plan to grow many crops to size in September and October. Although Asian greens can make some growth Nov-Feb, many crops will not. The ratio depends on your latitude, and is less extreme where we are in Virginia. Grow crops that are less affected by light shortage. Adding artificial lighting is not financially worthwhile.
  5. Well, my notes don’t include #5! It was something to do with appropriate crops, I think. Crops they can grow under shelters with no additional heating: spinach, baby kale, tatsoi, mustards, corn salad (mâche), claytonia, if T19 rowcovers are added for temperatures below 0°C (32°F). They use two layers of rowcover for temperatures below -5°C (23°F) and three layers below -10°C (14°F). They use minimal heating for chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, kale, lettuces, turnips, radishes, arugula, sorrel, celery, cilantro, parsley. You could consider soil-heating with PEX tubing filled with glycol (poisonous), 24″ (60 cm) deep in the soil, below cultivation level. At Quatre Temps they use above ground perforated polyethylene tubing in the pathways (it’s OK to step on it, it’s not high pressure).
Tatsoi at Twin Oaks ready for harvesting of whole plants.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the advanced session, we learned more details of their techniques and systems.

  • They start seeds for their winter crops in large cells (4″, 10 cm) so that they can keep their summer crops in the ground for 1-3 weeks longer. When they transplant these, they are careful about spacing, aiming to increase the light falling on each leaf. They plant the crops twice as close in the row, with double-wide spaces between rows, compared to warmer, more light-filled times of year.
  • They irrigate twice a week for 20 minutes, but I don’t know the flow rate of their driptape. From November to January they do not irrigate at all, as growth is so slow.
  • They fertilize in two doses, a little at planting time and more in February, using a mixture of compost, chicken manure and cotton meal, with the addition of feather mela in February. Bacterial activity increase with soil temperature. “Fertilizing cold soils is mysterious. . .”
  • Diseases in winter are mostly fungal. Use strong transplants, with a Rootshield dip before transplanting. They open the sidewalls every 4 hours to remove excess humidity and pay close attention to airflow. If needed, they use Contans.
  • Aphids survive at 5°F (-15°C). At 50°F (10°C) an adult female can create 20 offspring (per day?). At Quatre Temps, they use a three week winter break with no crops to freeze out their shelters. It gets down to -4°C (25°F). They disinfect in spring, removing all plant material, cleaning the structure itself with water and SaniDate (although it also kills beneficials).
  • For heating, a heat pump is very expensive but very efficient. An electric coil is less expensive. A climate battery (aerothermal energy) costs $20,000 and includes 24” (60 cm) diameter pipes deep in the soil, and a large fan. They use one to pre-heat air for the air-tube heating system. Something most of us can only dream about.
  • After the winter break, they direct sow new crops. To provide food for April, they plan gradual crop successions to bridge the gap between winter and spring. This also evens the workload.

Senposai is our star of Asian greens at Twin Oaks. Here’s a bed of senposai outdoors in spring. it grows really well in the winter hoophouse. Photo Kathryn SimmonsCrops they have been trialing include perennial sorrel, which regrows early (mid-Feb); celery and parsley (both very successful winter crops); Tokyo bekana, senposai and komatsuna (grow well in low light); green onions in fall and spring (don’t do well with light levels they get in winter); chrysanthemums regrow well, even in low light.

Vegetable Growing Tips, Winter 2023-2024. Part 2 VABF-SFOP Summit

VABF/SFOP Summit conference January 2024

 At the VABF-SFOP Summit in January, I attended the half-day intensive by Jean-Martin Fortier, Market Gardening 2.0. He covered a brief description of what market gardening is, five different crops that are most profitable, and three management tools for profitable farming. He briefly covered his career from 2004 establishing the 1.5 acre vegetable farm La Grelinette with his wife Maud-Hélène Desroches; his 2015 move to run a training farm school, La Ferme des Quatre-Temps,  with 10 2-year trainees per year; his 2023 move to set up a farm-to-table restaurant, Espace Old Mill, very close to home.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

J-M’s five crops for optimal profitability are summer squash, greenhouse tomatoes, garlic, carrots, small eggplants.

For squash, J-M recommends Romanesco, Safari, Gold Mine and Zephyr, harvesting each of their two plantings (in Quebec) for 10-12 weeks. They plant on landscape fabric with melted holes. The squash are netted until flowering. His workshop included all the details. See J-M’s video about using insect netting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWI30jSQa40. He recommends three types of net: 25 gm net, 47 gm net, and the newer heavy-duty woven net, all from ProtekNet. DuboisAg.com.

Marbonne tomato.
Photo credit Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For greenhouse tomatoes, which are 10% of their sales, they grow Marbonne, Margold, Aurea, Big Dena, Marnero and Beorange, all grafted at 4 weeks of age onto Maxifort or Trust rootstock. This is a highly technical crop, grown with some heating, harvested from early June to October. The spacing is intensive, one row per 30” (75 cm) bed, plants every 13” (33 cm), with the centers pinched out to produce double-header plants. The tomato vines are trained to wires, and the lower-and-lean system is used.

The famous Music garlic.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

For garlic, they grow Music hardneck and Siberian softneck, saving their own seed to avoid buying seed lots infested with disease or pests. They plant 2” (5 cm) deep using a dibbler, 3 rows per 30” (75 cm) bed, with plants 5” (14 cm) apart. They combat the leek moths with Tricho-Gard cards containing pupae of the parasitoid Trichogramma wasp. Their garlic sells at $3-$5 per bulb.

Napoli carrots. Credit Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For carrots, they grow Adelaide for earlies, Napoli for fall and winter. They found the tops of Mokum too weak. They rowcover the bed for a week before sowing, to pre-germinate weeds. After removing the rowcover and flaming, they sow the carrots with a Jang seeder. They sow some beets as an indicator, flaming the bed as soon as the beets emerge. For cultivating between the rows of carrots, they use Biodisks on a Terrateck wheelhoe. The bio-disc tool consists of two parabolic discs and two straight discs. It provides precision weeding and hilling on rows on light soils. To harvest, one person loosens the carrots with a broadfork, two people pull bunches.

Fairy Tale Eggplant. Photo johnny’s Selected Seeds

For baby eggplants, they grow small fast-maturing varieties such as Fairy Tale, Orient Express, Orient Charm, Hansel and Nadia, on landscape fabric in an unheated caterpillar tunnel, 1 row per 30” bed, 18” in-row spacing. They transplant at 7-8 weeks, large plants just starting to flower.

Terrateck Biodiscs.
Photo Taerrateck

As well as the Jang seeder and Terrateck bio-disks, they recommend tarping, mini-tunnels, the flextine weeder, and a bubbler (Jacuzzi pump) in the wash tank.

J-M’s management tips include a Monday Morning Game Plan, touring the farm and listing the tasks; making a map and task calendar for every week; sharing the week’s task list with the crew on Monday afternoons, and finishing the day with a preview of the next day’s action list, which helps the crew be ready for an efficient start the next morning. Cap the number of hours of work expected each day. Cap the number of each plant you set out – don’t plant more hoping for the best – this adds costs! Every week, at a consistent time, hold a compulsory Roses, Thorns and Buds session for up to one hour, where each person takes a few uninterrupted minutes to describe their Rose highlight that week (something that made them excited, proud and happy); then the Thorns (something that left them sad, frustrated, angry and why) and finishing with the Buds (something they are looking forward to in the coming week). If a big issue comes up, you could go back to it after the round is completed.

I also attended a workshop on perennial cover crops, that I’ll go into details of in a future cover crops post. It was led by Cerruti R2 Hooks, Veronica Yurchak, from the Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, and Hanna Kahl of UC Davis.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore IPM Center has more information on IPM.

I also attended a workshop on Securing Organic Vegetable Production in Virginia Through Increased Disease Management, by Steve Rideout of Virginia Tech. His recent work has been on Septoria on cilantro and parsley, bacterial spot, bacterial speck and early blight on tomato, anthracnose on peppers, powdery mildew and downy mildew on squash.

Steve described the Disease Management Pyramid, with a base layer of the cropping system chosen. Once this is optimized cultural practices and disease-resistant varieties can be used to further reduce the chance of a disease. Chemical control is a last resort, if all else fails. Heat seed treatments can be used to prevent bacterial spot and bacterial speck. Rutgers has step-by-step instructions for avoiding bacterial canker of tomato including sanitation measures.  To reduce tomato diseases that are soil-borne, support the plants up off the ground, use mulch to prevent splash-back, remove the lower leaves of the plants, and use drip irrigation if possible.

Pepper anthracnose. Photo Bayer.

Pepper anthracnose is hard to control by any means, and some resistant varieties are low-yielding. A 2 or 3-year rotation, using certified seed, reducing humidity in the plant canopy (increasing airflow), removing infected fruit, and using mulch and drip can help.

Cucurbit powdery mildew and downy mildew are very different from each other. Downy mildew strikes cucumbers worst of all the cucurbits. There are two strains. Time your planting to avoid DM, by planting in spring in full sun. There is a Cucurbit DM Forecast Site, which shows the annual spread by county. (Nothing to see in February!). The main symptoms are leaf spots that are yellow turning brown on the upper surface and fuzzy on the underside. Steve recommended DMR401, DMR264, SV4179S, Bricky Brickyard?), Bristol and Common Wealth Seeds South Wind as varieties with best resistance.

Cucumber leaves with downy mildew.
Photo Research Gate.

Cucurbit PM does not trouble cucumbers as much as other cucurbits. It forms a sparse white dusty-looking coating, and does best on dry days with dewy nights of 6 hours or more. Better results are found with a homozygous rather than heterozygous resistant variety. Spraying with water can help, but don’t spray cucurbits with anything if the sir temperature is more than 90F. Sulfur, copper, M-Pede, Serenade and Regalia can help. M-Pede may also reduce pests including deer!

Virginia’s biggest pumpkin disease is Plectosporium blight, which can also affect cucumbers and squash, starting as tiny leaf spots, then scarring the leaf veins on the underside, and the stems. Look for resistant cultivars.

Broccoli head with Alternaria fungus. Photo UCANR

Stepping away from cucurbits and considering brassicas, especially broccoli, next. Alternaria lesions of concentric rings can be hidden in the broccoli crown. Bacterial Rot lesions are seen on the leaf margins, moving in as blocks of affected tissue. It smells bad. Some most-resistant varieties include Emerald Jewel, Green Magic, Marathon, Avenger, Vallejo. Also good are Gypsy, Belstar, Eastern Magic, Burney in hot weather. Expo, Montflor were also recommended. Fungicides are not very effective, but OSO (polyoxin zinc) is the best if you have to.

The Plant Diseases Clinic charges $25 per sample sent to them (this may vary from state to state). See the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations and the 2020 Southeastern Commercial Vegetable Crop Handbook and choose your Organic solutions from those resources.

This post is long enough! I also attended workshops on Meeting the Climate Challenge with Mark Schonbeck, and Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith. I hop to tell you more about those soon!

Rick and Janice Felker of Mattawoman Creek Farms on the Eastern Shore, VA extended an offer to provide a limited amount pf free assistance to farmers interested in learning more about their crop production and organic certification experiences. Contact Rick and Janice to find out if they still have spare time!

Success with Growing Cabbage in Spring

Young Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, a fast maturing pointed variety.
Photo Pam Dawling

Some of this material is from my book Sustainable Market Farming.

Cabbages can be reliable workhorses, providing large harvests over long periods. In colder regions, cabbages are planted only in the spring and grow all summer, into the fall and winter, until cold weather kills them. In the South, they are a spring/early summer and a fall/overwintered crop, as it’s too hot to grow them in the summer. In parts of California and the Pacific Northwest, they’ll grow year-round.

Cabbage crop requirements

Cabbages do best on fertile, well-drained soil with adequate moisture. They require a lot of potassium, so a sprinkling of wood ash, kelp meal or granite dust could be helpful. Calcium, boron, iron, manganese and molybdenum are also important for good brassica crops — healthy, biologically active soils can usually supply enough of all these. If not, amend as needed.

Young Farao cabbage, a good fast-growing round variety.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cabbage varieties

Be clear about what kind of cabbage you are looking for, especially whether it’s for fresh eating, slaw, sauerkraut or storage, and what size you want and how many days from seeding to harvest.

  • For quick-maturing cabbage, we choose Early Jersey Wakefield (63d OP), Golden Acre (62d OP) and Farao (64d F1) (All days to maturity in this list are from transplanting in spring. Add 14 days for direct sowing. Subtract 10-14 days for warm weather sowings.)
  • For large solid cabbage for making sauerkraut, we choose Gunma (110d F1), Tribute (103d F1) or Early Flat Dutch (85d OP)
  • For a green cabbage that holds well in hot weather, to extend the season as long as possible, the flat Tendersweet (71d F1) is tasty and works well for us. It is good for coleslaw and wraps, but not for storage
  • We like a red that’s fairly large and yet quick-maturing (many reds are too slow for us, taking us deep into hot weather). We used to favor Super Red 80 (73d), but gave it up after two poor years. Ruby Perfection (85d F1) stores fairly well, as does Integro (85d F1)
  • We like savoy cabbage, and find Melissa (85d F1) and Famosa (80d F1) quick and reliable
  • For storage we have liked Storage #4 (95d F1), Kaitlyn (94d F1), and Late Flat Dutch (100d OP)
  • Deadon (105d F1) is a particularly cold-hardy one to grow into the winter. It survives down to at least 10°F (-12°C)
  • High Mowing and Johnny’s Seeds have good selections of over twenty cabbage varieties, including the 77d 10-17 lb (4.5-7.7 k) Megaton, good for fresh eating and kraut.

Sowing cabbage seed

A seed flat of cabbage and several flats of spotted out seedlings in our greenhouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

In early spring, transplants have the advantage over direct-seeded crops — they grow faster under protected conditions and bring earlier harvests. At other times of year, you may prefer to direct seed.

Work back from your desired harvest date to calculate the sowing date. Naturally you’ll need to allow for your climate and choose a realistic transplanting date. We start our very first cabbages in our greenhouse in mid–late January, as soon as I’m mentally prepared to start a whole new year. Maincrop cabbage follows in mid-February.

Despite being a cool-weather crop, brassicas actually germinate very well at high temperatures: the ideal is 77°F–85°F (25°C–30°C), and 95°F (35°C) is still OK. Given enough water, the seedlings will emerge in four and a half days at the low end of this range, and at the top in only three days. The minimum temperature for good germination is 40°F (4.5°C), but you’ll need to wait more than two weeks for emergence if it’s that chilly.

We start our spring cabbages in home-made open wood flats, sowing 3–4 seeds per inch (5–10 mm apart). We press a plastic ruler 0.25″ (6 mm) deep into the seed compost to make a small furrow, spacing the rows 2″–3″ (5 cm) apart.

Once they have emerged, the seedlings need good light, nutrients, airflow and protection from bugs. 60°F–70°F (15°C–21°C) is a good temperature range for growing them. As soon as the seed leaves are fully open, we spot (prick) them out to 4″ (10 cm) deep flats, with 40 plants per 12″ x 24″ (30 x 60 cm) flat. The plants grow to transplanting size in these flats.

Spotting cabbage seedlings from a seed flat into a transplant flat.
Photo Wren Vile

For the last two weeks before transplanting, harden off the plants by moving them into cooler, breezier, brighter conditions.

Transplanting cabbage

We grow spring cabbage in 4′ (1.2 m) beds, at two rows per bed, with plants 18″ (50 cm) apart. Mini-cabbages can be spaced at 8″–12″ (20–30 cm) in the row, with rows 12″–18″ (30–45 cm) apart, and may give higher total yields as well as heads of a more useful size.

We aim to transplant at four true leaves (5–8 weeks after sowing in spring). This is early to mid-March for the earliest cabbage (seven weeks old), very early April for maincrop cabbage. Soil temperatures of 65°F–75°F (18°C–24°C) are ideal. Optimal air temperatures for most brassicas are 60°F–65°F (15°C–18°C).

Water the seedlings well before transplanting, and plant all the way up to the base of the first true leaves to give the stem good support. Press the soil very firmly around the plants so the roots have good soil contact and won’t die in an air pocket. I was taught to tug on a leaf after transplanting: if well planted the leaf will tear and the plant will remain in the ground. Water within half an hour of planting and again on the third and seventh days, and then once a week.

Young spring cabbage with a hay mulch. Wren VIle

For cabbage, the sixth and seventh leaf stage is the most vulnerable. If the weather deteriorates at this critical time, give your plants extra protection. High daytime temperatures can to some extent compensate for low nighttime temperatures — it’s cold days and cold nights together that do the damage. We use thick rowcover over our spring cabbages for a few weeks after transplanting, then may switch to insect netting.

Two weeks after transplanting, we check the plants and fill the gaps with transplants we have kept for this. If it is necessary to use big plants to fill gaps, we pinch off a few of the lower leaves to reduce their water needs.

Caring for  cabbage in spring and summer

About a month after transplanting maincrop cabbage (mid-May), we remove the rowcovers and the sticks we use to hold them down.

We use only overhead sprinkler irrigation (not drip tape) for spring cabbage, which helps cool the leaves and can wash off aphids. Organic mulches help keep the soil cool, as well as adding lots of organic matter to the soil. Brassica roots are relatively shallow, so long droughty spells without irrigation can cause problems. One inch (2.5 cm) of water per week is about right.

One of our impact sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli and cabbage patch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cabbage pest control

Using rowcovers or insect netting keeps many pests off the plants while they are small. We have not had much trouble with aphids, perhaps partly because of our overhead sprinklers; insecticidal soap sprayed three times, once every five days, can usually deal with them. Our worst pest is the harlequin bug. When necessary, we handpick them. Ladybugs are reputed to eat harlequin bug eggs.

Sometimes we have had enough cabbage worms to make Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) necessary, but usually paper wasps eat the caterpillars. The action threshold is an average of 1 cabbage looper, 1.5 imported cabbageworms, 3.3 armyworms or 5 diamondback moth larvae per 10 plants. Below this level you can do watchful waiting rather than spraying with Bt or spinosad. Apparently paper or plastic fake cabbage moths on sticks will deter more from moving in. There are templates for homemade cabbage moth decoys online. The eyespots are important!

Yarrow flowering in our hoophouse in late November, 13 months after sowing.
Photo Pam Dawling

We are also lucky enough to have the naturally occurring wasp parasite of cabbage worms, the Braconid wasp Cotesia species, which are found as small cottony white or yellowish oval cocoons in groups on brassica leaves. The Cotesia wasps like umbelliferous flowers, and overwinter on yarrow as well as brassicas. If you find Cotesia cocoons and your brassicas aren’t diseased, you can leave plants in the field over winter. Or you could collect up leaves with cocoons in late fall and store them at 32°F–34°F (0°C–1°C) until spring. Hopefully no one will clean out your fridge without asking.

To float out worms and aphids after harvest, soak the produce in warm water with a little vinegar for up to fifteen minutes, then rinse.

Harvesting cabbage

Our cabbage heads up from May 25 and some hold till July 15. For storage cabbage (a valuable crop in summers in warm climates with scarce fresh leafy greens), we set the cut heads upside down on the stump, in the “basket” of outer leaves, and come back an hour later to gather them into net bags. This allows the cut stem to dry out and seal over, improving storability.

Mature Farao early cabbage. Note the curling-back leaf on the head, a sign of maturity.
Photo Pam Dawling

Success with Growing Cucumbers

A Spacemaster cucumber plant in our hoophouse on April 23.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cucumbers are often overlooked, and now we are at the slower time of year, we can think over some crops we’d like to improve on. Cucumbers provide juicy crunch and, if they get enough water while growing, good flavor that conveys the essence of summer meals.

Cucumbers can also help with hydration in hot weather. I well remember a hot day when I was rototilling. I was getting thirsty, had drained my water bottle, but didn’t want to stop until I had done as much tilling as was humanly possible that day. My luck was in! Next to where I was tilling was a row of cucumbers. I slowed the engine, grabbed a ripe cucumber on the drive past, and sank my teeth into it! Instant gratification! I quickly felt revived. Plus – no packaging, no food miles!

My book, Sustainable Market Farming, includes a chapter on cucumbers and muskmelons. Here is about a third of that information about cucumbers.

Cucumber varieties

Cucumbers are warm-weather crops, usually direct sown, and maturing 55–60 days later. They are very easy to grow, apart from dealing with pests and diseases! They include two types: slicers and picklers.

Among slicers are the standard American types (open-pollinated Marketmore types and hybrids such as Generally), European varieties such as Telegraph (60d OP) and long slender Asian ones such as Suhyo Long (60d OP). Asian varieties do not have the disease-resistance of varieties bred for US climates.

As I said in my post Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024, our favorite slicing cucumber has been renamed Generally (66d F1, resistant to Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV); Downy Mildew (DM); Powdery Mildew (PM); and scab).

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

In 2023 we tried South Wind from Common Wealth Seed Growers. South Wind (55d OP) is resistant to DM, PM and tolerant to BW. We were pleased with its sweet taste and lack of bitterness.

Pickling cucumbers are usually smaller than slicing cucumbers, and they remain crisp when pickled. Some kinds are harvested relatively large, and sliced to make pickles. Others are picked small and pickled whole. Pickling cucumbers can also be eaten raw. We like the small-leaved Little Leaf, also known as H-19 and Arkansas Little Leaf (56d OP, resistant to ALS, ANTH, Bacterial Wilt (BW), CMV, DM, PM and scab) not only because of its disease resistance but also for ease of recognition. We often have inexperienced helpers, and we say: “If the plant has small leaves, it’s a pickler, so pick small.” We have also liked Cross Country (57d F1, resistant to ANTH, ALS, DM, PM, scab, but susceptible to BW)

For an early hoophouse crop, we grow Spacemaster (60d OP, resistant to CMV and scab), a bush-type, full-sized variety.

“Burpless” is not genetically connected with bitterness. Some varieties have a recessive bitterfree gene, but they are just as likely to cause burps in susceptible individuals. Bitterfree varieties include Marketmore 80, Marketmore 97, Diva and European and Dutch greenhouse varieties (which stay mild even under drought conditions), Bitterfree varieties attract fewer cucumber beetles.

Both slicing and pickling cucumbers are available in gynoecious (all female) varieties. To make sure the fruits will be pollinated, these seeds come packaged with 10%–15% seeds of a pollinator variety (sometimes dyed so that growers can ensure some get in every planting). Olympian, Generally and Diva are gynoecious. The flowers with miniature fruit behind the petals are female.

Parthenocarpic varieties set fruit without pollination. These can be kept under rowcover for extending the season or to keep pests off for the entire life of the plant. Little Leaf, Telegraph and Diva are parthenocarpic.

Flowering cucumbers. Photo by Alexis Yamashita

Crop requirements, seed specs, yield of cucumbers

Cucumbers require a fertile, well-drained soil with pH 6–7 and plenty of sunshine. They have no frost tolerance. Adequate water is especially important in the seedling stage and during fruiting.

Cucumber seed specs: 1000 seeds/oz, 36 seeds/g. 0.5 oz /100′, 6 oz. /1000′ at 6 seeds/ft (100 seeds, or 11g/m at 2.5 cm spacing).

Cucumber yield can be around 260 lb/100′ (388 kg/100 m), and the amount to grow could be 10–15 lb (5–7 kg) per person for the season. Unless you are growing parthenocarpic varieties, you will need ten to twenty bee visits per flower during the one day the flower is open, for a good-shaped and -sized fruit to grow.

Sowing cucumbers

Soil temperatures should be at least 60°F (15.5°C), preferably 70°F (21°C), so you might do transplants early in the year. Cucumber seeds will not germinate at a soil temperature below 50°F (10°C). We transplant our first planting and direct sow the rest.

For direct sowing we make a furrow 0.5″–0.75″ (1.3–1.8cm) deep, water the furrow if the soil is dry, put one seed every 6″ (15 cm), pull the soil back over the seeds and tamp down. We cover with hoops and rowcover or netting until the plants start to flower (about a month) as we have many pests and diseases. Once flowering, we remove the cover, hoe and thin to 12″–18″ (30–45 cm). Cucumber rows need to be 3’–6′ (1–2 m) apart.

It is possible to sow through black plastic mulch by jabbing holes in the plastic and popping the seeds in. This method leads to earlier harvests, as the mulch warms the soil, and there will be no weeds.

New Spacemaster bush cucumber transplant in a bed with old winter spinach, young snap peas and baby lettuce mix.
Photo Pam Dawling

Transplanting cucumbers

Cucumbers are not very easy to transplant, so choose a method that minimizes root damage, such as soil blocks or 2″ (5-cm) deep cell flats that are easy to eject plants from. Sow 2–3 seeds per cell 0.5″ (1 cm) deep. Single (thin to one plant per cell) by cutting off weak seedlings at soil level. Keep temperature above 70°F (21°C) during the day and 60°F (16°C) at night.

Sow four weeks before you intend to plant out, and harden the plants by reducing water before transplanting. Warm overcast conditions late in the day are best for transplanting, and rowcover (on hoops to reduce abrasion) can be used to provide sheltered conditions. Cucumber transplants are often leggy and should be planted so that the entire fragile stem up to the base of the leaves is below soil level.

Caring for the cucumber crop

In bare soil, hoe soon after the seedlings emerge, and thin the plants as needed. Drip irrigation and plastic mulch can do a lot to improve the quality, yield and earliness of melons. Plastic mulches prevent weeds during the critical weed-free period as the vines grow. They can also reduce cucumber beetle numbers, as they deter egg laying and larval migration.

Avoid working the crop (including harvesting) when the foliage is wet, as fungal diseases spread this way.

Succession planting of cucumbers

Because old plants are more likely to yield bitter cucumbers, succession planting is very worthwhile even if you have no pests. We grow five plantings of outdoor cucumbers and one early one in the hoophouse. Our second and fourth outdoor sowings include picklers as well as slicers.

Our sowing dates now are Mar 1 (to plant in the hoophouse April 4 or so), March 25 (to plant outdoors April 20), May 23, June 22, July 16 and Aug 6. Aug 6 is about as late as it is worth sowing here, where the first frost can be Oct 14. We use rowcover on cold nights for this late crop. As a rule of thumb, in spring, make another sowing when the first true leaf appears in the previous sowing. In summer, make the next sowing when you have 80 percent emergence of the previous planting.

Insect pests of cucumbers

As always, encourage beneficial insects and predators to reduce pest numbers. Soldier beetles (Pennsylvania leatherwings) and wolf spiders are good predators.

Striped cucumber beetle in a squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Spotted and striped cucumber beetles cause feeding damage and transmit bacterial wilt and squash mosaic virus. Rowcover or insect netting will keep beetles from vines, but will need to be removed when the female flowers open, except for parthenocarpic varieties. Some people report good control using the yellow plastic sticky traps along with the cucumber beetle lure sachets sold by Johnny’s Seeds.

Another approach is to grow a trap crop such as Cocozelle summer squash, Seneca or Dark Green zucchini, or Hubbard squash along the edge of the field. The trap crop is then flamed or tilled in when pest numbers build up. If all else fails, and action is imperative, Spinosad will kill them. Neem doesn’t kill them, but does deter them.

The brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB), Halyomorpha halys, has over three hundred host species, including almost any fruit or podded crop. It can cause tremendous damage and, so far, has no reliable methods of control, organic or otherwise. It has several generations per year in the South. Predatory stink bugs, assassin bugs, spined soldier bugs and two native egg parasitoids will reduce the BMSB numbers, but may not give adequate control. Also see eOrganic Stink Bug Management Using Trap Crops in Organic Farming.

Low-cost management tactics include growing parthenocarpic under cover throughout growth and harvest. The High Tunnel Pest Exclusion system using 40%-50% shade knitted shadecloth to cover tunnels is effective at excluding stink bugs.

Diseases of cucumbers

To minimize diseases, choose resistant varieties, provide favorable growing conditions, plow in or remove and compost plant refuse, and control insect pests. The downloadable Cornell University Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management has information on dealing organically with most common diseases, including Angular leaf spot (bacterial), Anthracnose (a fungus disease), Bacterial wilt (Erwinia), Black rot/gummy stem blight (Didymella bryoniae fungus), Downy mildew, Mosaic virus, Phytophthora blight, Powdery mildew, and Scab (Cladosponum cucumerinum fungus). There are good photos in Identifying Diseases of Vegetables from Penn State.

Harvesting cucumbers

I wrote on this site about Harvesting squash and cucumbers, in 2018. In hot weather some people get a rash while harvesting, from prickly leaves on sweaty skin; others just get a short-term itchiness that is cured by rinsing arms and hands in cool water.

A helpful hint is to wear long sleeves for this task. Keep a suitable cotton shirt handy to slip on before you start. But sometimes it just feels too hot. Cutting sleeves off an old shirt and hemming and threading elastic in the top end works.

Using a pole to locate cucumbers among the vines. Note the cucumber beetle feeding holes in the leaves.
Photo Pam Dawling

For seeking mature cucumbers, we use a pole to rummage in the vines. It does little damage, and you can easily feel when you hit a cucumber. To harvest cucumbers, put your hand around the fruit and use your thumb to push the stem away from the top of the fruit. Remove oversize cucumbers to stimulate continued production.

Storing cucumbers

Cucumbers can be held at 45°F–50°F (7°C–10°C) and 90% humidity for up to two weeks. They will be damaged by temperatures too cold, becoming soft and slimy. Storage near other ripening fruits or vegetables can cause cucumbers to become bitter.

Season extension for cucumbers

Late crops can be covered with rowcover to fend off a few light frosts. Pollinators won’t be able to get at the flowers, but that doesn’t matter if you already have enough pollinated fruits on the plants. It takes cucumbers about 45 days or more from pollination to harvest, so if you are having a few early frosts, using rowcover and pruning to get a last flush of fruit can be very worthwhile.

Stale seedbeds, triage farming, vertical farming

This week I have for you several sources of information related to small-scale sustainable farming.

Hoe the small weeds in this bed of young lettuce soon, and the closing canopy of the lettuce will shade out most weeds after that. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Triage Farming

Growing for Market has posted Triage Farming by Matt S. as a free article on their website

Matt tells of becoming farm manager on a new piece of land, with terrible drainage problems and lots of grass weeds.

“There are five spheres in which a farm can be challenged. Most farms deal with serious disadvantages in one or two of these. We were handicapped in four.” The five are location challenges, site challenges, infrastructure and equipment challenges, institutional challenges (dealing with the bureaucracies), human challenges. They didn’t have human challenges!

As a response to kicking around dried mud-balls full of grass bristles, Matt invented Triage Farming. Triage (from the French trier ‘separate out’) was a concept that came into wider use during WW1 as medics had to sort injured soldiers into three groups: those that would be OK without treatment really soon, those that were going to die whether they had treatment or not, and those who would get the most value from immediate treatment. In farming it means prioritizing using your limited resources to their maximum effect when it’s impossible to accomplish all you hoped to do.

This is not a sustainable way to farm (or live). It’s a way to preserve sanity and be most effective when things have got out-of-control. It doesn’t leave a feeling of satisfaction. But nor a feeling of despair. It can be ruthless, sloppy and minimalist.

Maybe you have never had such moments, but I have. If you have, then I recommend this article. Keep a copy handy, especially in the heat of the summer. You’ll likely not agree with every decision Matt made, but the article will help you raise your head and look around, rather than keep pushing on the task at the top of the schedule you made back in January.

Matt helps with deciding which crops to grow, and how much, if you know it’s likely to be a difficult year (new site, brand new crew, etc). He works through each of the five challenge spheres he identified and explains his response to that aspect: suitable crops for different location challenges, suitable equipment, approaches to weeding (timely, untimely, and “carnage weeding”), tools and equipment for different situations, dealing with various bureaucracies, and how to delegate to other workers.

Matt has an uplifting style, which also helps when the going gets tough.

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False and Stale Seedbeds

Future Farming Center Banner

I just read a very clear 25-page publication about using false seedbeds and stale seedbeds, including flaming. False and Stale Seedbeds: The most effective non-chemical weed management tools for cropping and pasture establishment. Dr Charles N Merfield, 2013. Lincoln, New Zealand: The BHU Future Farming Centre www.bhu.org.nz/future-farming-centre

Screenshot 2023-07-31 at 13-45-27 False-and-stale-seedbeds–the-most-effective-non-chemical-weed-management-tools-for-cropping-and-pasture-establishment-2015-ffc-merfield.pdf

“False and stale seedbeds are based on three rules:

  1. most weed seeds are dormant,
  2. tillage is the most effective means of germinating weed seeds, and
  3. most weeds only emerge from the top 5 cm / 2” of soil.
  • Both false and stale seedbeds work by the very simple process of germinating the weeds then killing them and then growing the crop.
  • False seedbeds use tillage/cultivation to kill the weeds.
  • Stale seedbeds use thermal weeders or herbicides to kill the weeds.”

Both false and stale seedbeds are made by preparing the bed 7-10 days before you plan to sow your crop, watering if the conditions are dry, then killing the carpet of emerged weeds, by very shallow tilling, hoeing or flaming. Getting the tillage correct is critical, including having a good weather-eye. Flaming will kill broad-leaved weeds, but only set grasses back by about a week. Alternatively, cover the prepared bed with a tarp to germinate and kill the weeds.

The 5-15% of weed seeds that are non-dormant are mostly in the top 5 cm/2” of the soil, and germinate very quickly. These can be very effective techniques, and this publication explains them well, and has good photos of crops, and machines such as the milling bedformer and the roller undercutter, and some fancy flamers and steam weeders, which might be equipment to aspire to, while working with spring tine weeders and shallow tillage. The explanations help with getting a better understanding of weeds seed germination, and so how to succeed with pre-plant tillage and post-crop-emergence cultivation. Timing is important, as is having the right tools for the job.

There’s also a good relevant article in Growing for Market:

Tools and strategies to reduce time spent weeding by Sam Hitchcock Tilton

Definitely read this if you are spending a lot of time weeding, or your crops are over-run by weeds. Work towards reducing your weed population each year, by preventing weeds from seeding. “Realize that one lamb’s-quarters or kochia or bindweed or galinsoga plant going to seed can be a much bigger problem next year than 10 or even 100 non-reproducing plants are now. So marshal your precious weeding resources smartly.”

Timely hoeing, while weeds are tiny and quick to die, can prevent the need for pulling weeds by hand, if you are working on a quite small scale. If your scale needs other tools, here you can learn about equipment to physically control weeds as part of your cropping system. If you are using a 4-wheel tractor, consider hillers, mini-ridgers, finger-weeders, Spyders, beet knives (L-blades), tine weeders, basket weeders.

A Thiessen walk-behind tractor cultivator, with Spyders up front, with the front of the Spyder angled towards the crop row (to pull soil away from the row), and torsion weeders at the back to weed in the crop row.

The article includes some equipment for 2-wheel walk-behind tractors, such as the Thiesson cultivator, Buddingh and Tilmor basket weeders, Even wheel hoes have weeding attachments.

Sam also describes stale seed-bedding, and advises rolling the prepared bed before tarping or watering, to provide the weed seeds good contact with the soil.

Sam’s article includes excellent photos, a tailored-for-beginners’ explanation of which tool does what and many links to other website and videos.

As Ben Hartman points out in The Lean Farm, hand-weeding is in a sign of failure to act sooner, that has led to a time-wasting scramble to correct the situation. read my review of The Lean Farm.

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Here’s an article from USDA on Killing the Crop Killers—Organically

As an alternative to bromide fumigation to kill pest nematodes, and other pests, try anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD), an organic treatment that temporarily removes oxygen from the soil, is inexpensive and easy to apply. This method involves using a source of carbon, such as orchard grass, or mustard seed meal, tilled into the soil


Lean Times Hit the Vertical Farming Business.

Vertical farming is a code for a type of high tech hydroponics. See this article on the BBC website. Yes, hydroponics uses a large amount of energy to grow the plants. Yes, growing plants takes skill and attention. Yes, growing only a few crops is risky: people will only eat so much lettuce. Aerofarms has filed for bankruptcy, and several other “vertical farming operations” have hit financial troubles too.

Balance that with this post by Lee Rinehart from ATTRA:

Real Organic: Reflections on “The Deep Roots of Organic in Soil” by Paul Muller.

Soil is complex, with a universe of microorganisms, and cycles of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and many other elements. Farmers are part of the cycle. Organic farmers are seeking to make continuous improvement to the life in the soil, by observing patterns and lifeways, mimicking the native systems. We are not the center of the universe. Wendell Berry says “We don’t know what we are doing because we don’t know what we are undoing.”

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Plastic in the Organic Supply Chain Conference Report

From Modern Farmer

In early May, the Organic Center and the Organic Trade Association held the Organic Confluences conference about Reducing Plastic Across the Entire Organic Supply Chain. “While plastics serve many practical purposes on organic farms as well as for packaging and distribution, plastic production, use, and disposal cause massive amounts of pollution, which disproportionately affects low-income people and communities of color in the United States and around the world. At the conference, farmers, researchers, policymakers, wholesalers and retailers, nonprofit organizations, government agency staff and many others gathered to define the challenges in reducing plastic use, identify research needs, highlight success stories, and discuss what needs to be done to solve this growing problem.” Read a report about the conference on the eOrganic website here, with links to the conference program and slide presentations.

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Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Spinach Trial Underway to Inform Organic Seed Production

The Organic Seed Alliance is evaluating 272 spinach accessions from the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) seed collection at their research farm in Washington State to assess timing of bolting and seed yield potential as part of a NIFA OREI funded project. This fall, they will share the trial results as well as their knowledge on spinach seed production and seed cleaning techniques through a webinar hosted on eOrganic, but meanwhile, read more about the project on their blog post here!

The seed production trial information is a part of an effort to aid in developing better varieties for organic farmers. “Research on the role of soil microbes on nutritional content, nitrogen use efficiency, and abiotic stress such as extreme temperatures is also underway by the project lead researcher Vijay Joshi at Texas A&M, and Ainong Shi and Gehendra Bhattarai at University of Arkansas. Together with the results of the seed production trials this project will help inform organic spinach breeders and farmers, and anyone working with seed from the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) seed bank.” Results will be posted on the eOrganic project website.

eOrganic logo

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Tomato Breeding Project Fueled By Over 1,000 Backyard Gardeners

 

Some of the Dwarf Tomato Project’s diverse harvest. Courtesy of Craig LeHoullier

This 12-minute segment from Science Friday is an interview with Craig LeHouiller, who is a gardener/garden writer / tomato breeder in North Carolina. He is the author of Epic Tomatoes. In this segment he talks about the open source Dwarf Tomato Project. He and collaborator Patrina Nuske-Small aimed to preserve the flavor and beauty of heirloom tomatoes, without taking up too much space. They started crossbreeding heirloom tomatoes with smaller dwarf tomato plants. They signed up over 1000 volunteers across the world. They now have over 150 varieties of dwarf tomatoes, everything from cherries to beefsteaks, in every color. You can buy seeds from Victory Seeds, who have dedicated themselves to offering every dwarf variety produced.

 

Squash (and Zucchini) Success all Summer!

 

Gentry yellow squash in our hoophouse in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling

 The category “summer squash” includes yellow squash, patty pan squash and round squash, as well as zucchini, a specialized kind of summer squash. They are easy to grow – the main challenges are pests, diseases and moderating the quantities available. When a succession of healthy plantings can be maintained, these crops can crank out high yields of a vegetable almost everyone likes.

Varieties

For early crops, look for fast-maturing varieties. We like the green and yellow Zephyr squash, yellow crookneck Gentry squash, (both hybrid bush types), and the yellow Golden Glory and pale green Tender Grey OP zucchini. Squash is one crop where we think it pays to use hybrids. Open pollinated varieties tend to be less predictable, less productive and less reliable.

I posted about our Squash Variety Trial and Hoophouse Squash Trials a few years ago.

Rotting unpollinated squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

We were having trouble with Unpollinated Hoophouse Squash. The challenge is that early in spring, there are not many pollinating insects around, and those that are here, are working outdoors and not so likely to find their way into the hoophouse. We largely solved those problems by choosing varieties that are capable of a fair amount of self-pollination, such as the beautiful Golden Glory zucchini and Zephyr, a beautiful bi-color hybrid yellow squash with green ends, which seems better than some squash in self-pollination. It got a low rating in one variety trial I looked at, though it did OK for us.

Golden Glory zucchini. Open, disease-resistant plants
Photo Pam Dawling

We have tried growing some annual and perennial flowers in the hoophouse to attract the pollinators in. perennials are more likely to flower at the appropriate time than annuals, even if sown in the fall. We gave up on flowers in pots, as they dry out too fast in the hoophouse.

This spring, with yarrow and shungiku flowering at the right time, we didn’t have many unpollinated squash at all. Is this the secret to early season success with squash?

Sowing for Continuous Harvests

This frost-tender warm weather crop germinates at 60°F (15.5°C) minimum, and does best at 85°F (30°C). Germination takes 5-10 days. During growth the ideal temperatures are 75-85°F (24-30°C) in the day and 65°F (18°C) at night. From sowing to harvest takes 40-50 days. Lilac in full bloom is a phenological sign for the spring being warm enough to direct-sow squash.

Squash plants mature quickly and are then attacked by various insects and fungi, so it makes sense to plant successions every 2-4 weeks until late summer. To make the pest evasion successful, make the sowings in widely separated parts of your farm, and destroy the old sickly plants as soon as the new plants are producing. We plant 6 times during the year, aiming to have a new planting come into production every 25 days, starting 5/15, and ending with the first hard frost.

Summer squash plants under ProtekNet insect netting.
Pam Dawling

As mentioned, we transplant our very first summer squash and zucchini (sown 3/1), on 4/1 with rowcover, in the hoophouse. Our first planting outdoors is sown in the greenhouse 3/25, transplanted with rowcover 4/20, about 10 days before the frost date, depending on the weather. Some sources say to sow the second planting a month after frost and the third 3 weeks after the second.

After the first plantings indoors and out, we sow directly in the ground 5 times, 5/24, 6/23, 7/15 and 8/5 (70 days before our average first frost). 8/5 is our last worthwhile planting date. See my post Last Chance Sowings. Also see my post on Succession Planting for working back from your frost date to determine your last worthwhile planting date. Pay attention to the weather as you approach your average first frost date, and be ready to harvest mature crops and protect plants with rowcover. In many parts of the country, a frost or two will be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is worth the effort. It’s easy to get extra harvests for a month or two from mature plants you already have.

See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for more on seed specs, details of sowing, including growing transplants, as well as crop rotations, pests and scheduling succession sowings.

Harvest squash daily to keep them coming

The more you pick, the more you get! Early in the year, growth is slow. We start out harvesting our hoophouse squash and first outdoor squash every other day. Soon we switch to daily harvest (except Sunday). Monday morning squash can be monsters! See Harvesting Squash.

Harvesting Zephyr yellow squash. Note the long-sleeved shirt.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Early on, it’s important that people don’t pick too small. You need to get critical mass to provide enough to sell or cook, or supply your Food Pantry. Harvesting all the squash at 6” or bigger is important. You might choose a smaller size, once the season is underway. Be sure to explain to workers that they should remove and chop up any that are too big to eat. Don’t let monsters take all the energy from the plant. Look carefully.

Avoid harvesting when leaves are still wet with dew (or rain). To preserve the appearance of the squash avoid scratching the skin of the squash on the leaves. One way to do this is to enclose the fruit in your palm as you cut through the stem. Another is to move the spiny leaves out of the way. Yellow squash has thin stems and can be twisted from the plant. Zucchini stems are thick, and need to be cut.

Some people get quite a rash from harvesting these crops, others just get a short-term itchiness that is cured by rinsing arms and hands in cool water. Wear long sleeves for this job, or use special elastic cuffed protective sleeves.

Using plastic gauntlets or protective sleeves avoids getting skin irritations while harvesting squash. Photo by Pam Dawling

Summer squash will keep 10-21 days (if you are lucky) at 80% humidity and 45°F (7°C). Do not store at lower temperatures or chilling injury can occur. This shows up as a pitted surface which later grows black mold.

Protecting Squash from Pests

One key to reducing pest numbers is to till in old plantings promptly. Flaming is another option (if the soil is too wet to till, for instance).

Squash bugs making more squash bugs.
Photo Pam Dawling
Squash bug eggs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Squash bugs are probably the most common pest. The adults are long gray insects which emerge from overwintering in wooded areas once temperatures reach about 70°F (21°C). They also drift in on storm fronts. They feed on young seedlings for preference and lay groups of spaced bronze eggs on the undersides of leaves. The eggs hatch in 10 days and the nymphs suck sap from the plants. There are many generations each year and numbers quickly build. Drop hand-picked adults into soapy water rather than crushing them, as the smell of the crushed bugs attracts more. Most summer squash are in the species Cucurbita pepo. Growers with bad pest problems can try Tromboncino squash, a C. moschata squash, or Luffa (vegetable sponge) or Cucuzza (snake or serpent gourd), edible gourds which have more resistance to squash bugs. Be sure to cut them relatively small, while skins can be pierced by a fingernail, for good flavor. These are very vigorous, sprawling plants, which, happily, are also prolific. One option is to plant a row of regular zucchini alternating with these bigger plants – when the zucchini succumb to disease, the sprawlers will take over.

In the hoophouse, we do a daily hunt for striped cucumber beetles (and spotted ones, if we find those). We use some toothed tweezers and do this task first thing, before the beetles have warmed up enough to fly much. They spend the night in the flowers, so are easy to find in the morning. Cucumber beetles spread viral diseases. We reckon if we pay attention to killing off these first-generation beetles, we’ll have fewer throughout the gardens all summer. The hunting season for cucumber beetles here is on average about a month long.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Adult squash vine borers are fairly large orange and black fuzzy moths with glassy black wings. They are active in May and early June here, and there may be a second generation in late July/early August. The small flat brown eggs are laid singly at the base of the stem. The larvae hatch after one week, and are white with a brown head. They spend 4-6 weeks in the stem, eating upwards and growing to 1” (2.5 cm) in size. Then they dig into the soil and pupate for the winter. Plant symptoms include wilting of the whole plant, and stem holes surrounded by frass (caterpillar poop). It is possible to save the plant if you act at the first sign of trouble and pick out the grub, then pile soil over the injury to help the plant recover. Injecting Bt into the stem is another solution. Squash vine borer adults are reputed to be repelled by radishes sown in a 12” (30 cm) diameter circle around each squash plant, or in bands down either side of a row. It’s fine to harvest some of the radishes, but make sure to leave enough that their leaves touch, to provide a continuous barrier. Some growers recommend mixing wood ash or charcoal in the soil with the seeds at planting.

To repel aphids that transmit mosaic diseases, reflective foil mulch can be used. Borage and nasturtium interplanted in cucurbit rows are said to repel insects. They look pretty either way.

Outdoors we use insect netting on hoops over the row, as soon as we have sown the seeds in the ground (or set the transplants). We leave the netting in place until we see female flowers. It may be a surprise to you that there are both female and male flowers. Male flowers have just a thin stem, but female flowers have a miniature fruit behind the flower. Often the first flush of flowers are just males, so you don’t need to worry about those needing visits from pollinating insects. Low temperatures and high light intensity promote female sex expression, meaning that early in a chilly season some varieties of squash produce a lot of female flowers, and no males. Both are needed!

Watch Out for Squash Diseases

See the Squash Variety Trial post for more. Common diseases include Powdery Mildew, Downy Mildew, Anthracnose, Angular leaf spot, Black Rot (Gummy Stem Blight), Bacterial Wilt and various mosaic viruses.

Success with Growing Melons, Part 2

 

Mayor Canary melon in July. Photo Pam Dawling

I recently posted Success with Growing Melons, Part 1, which took us from the gleam in the eye to transplanting or sowing. Here I cover the rest of the season, and finish with more resources.

Care of Melon Plants

Avoid working the crop (including harvesting) when the foliage is wet, as fungal diseases spread this way. In bare soil, hoe soon after the seedlings emerge, and thin the plants if you sowed thickly. Larger spacing can be used later in the year when vines grow faster.

If the weather is less warm than you hoped, use hoops and thick rowcover until you are more confidant in the temperatures, then switch to insect netting, such as ProtekNet. We hoop and net our melons immediately after transplanting or sowing, to keep the bugs off. We keep the netting on until we see female flowers (they have miniature melons between the flower and the plant). Melons require pollination, so it is important to remove the netting.

Muskmelons on black plastic mulch over drip tape, flowering in early July. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Drip irrigation and plastic mulch can do a lot to improve the quality, yield and earliness of melons. Plastic mulches work well with rowcover, as there will not be weeds growing out of sight, concealed by the rowcover during the critical weed-free period as the vines grow. Plastic mulches can also reduce cucumber beetle numbers, as they deter egg laying and larval migration. Reflective mulches especially reduce beetle populations.

If weeds emerge through the mulch, pull them slowly, while stepping next to the melon stem. Melon roots near the surface can easily be injured. As melons ripen, put a piece of cardboard under the fruit to help prevent rot. With the late summer planting, you can pinch off new flowers to steer the plant’s energy into fruit that has already set. Keep the soil around melons watered with 1-2” (2-5cm) per week, up until the last week or two before harvest. Holding back on water during this time leads to sweeter melons.

Crop Rotations for Melons

Because of the many cucurbit pests and diseases, good crop rotation is important. We have only two big cucurbit plantings, winter squash and watermelon. These are three years and seven years apart in our ten-year rotation. Our other melons are grown in smaller amounts and fitted into spaces that also fit in with the rotation concept. Cucumber beetles are quite mobile, so rotation to a plot next to last year’s crop will not reduce their numbers.

August harvest of Pike muskmelons. Photo from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Succession Crops of Melons

In our climate we can sow melons four times, a month apart. The first row is from transplants, set outside May 3-6. We direct sow the second bed on May 25, then June 25 and July 6-15 for a “Last Chance” crop. The recommended last date for sowing melons is 100 days before your average first frost date.

Pests of Melons

Like most cucurbits, melons are vulnerable to striped and spotted cucumber beetles. These pests chew on plants and spread diseases, such as bacterial wilt and mosaic virus. Protect against cucumber beetles with rowcover or insect netting on hoops, installed at sowing or transplanting, or hunt them with tweezers every morning on leaves and inside flowers, when beetles are more slow-moving.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Watch for aphids, as they can also spread viruses. You can usually hose off leaves or apply an insecticidal soap to kill aphids before they inflict too much damage.

As always, encouraging beneficial insects and predators will reduce pest numbers. Soldier beetles (Pennsylvania Leatherwings) and Wolf Spiders are good predators. Predatory stink bugs, assassin bugs, spined soldier bugs and two native egg parasitoids will reduce Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) numbers, but do not give adequate control. Soapy water will kill BMSB nymphs – be cautious: cucurbit seedlings are sometimes damaged by soap sprays. In one study, one spraying killed about two thirds of the adult bugs. Other studies found soaps ineffective. Heterohabditis nematodes, available commercially, can control cucumber beetles, and may carry over into the next year.

Rowcover or insect netting will keep beetles from vines, but will need to be removed (except for parthenocarpic varieties) when the female flowers open. Some people report good control using the yellow plastic sticky traps along with the cucumber beetle lure sachets sold by Johnny’s Seeds. These can last a whole season and be moved from one crop to the next, suspended on wire hoops. To make your own sticky traps, use yellow plastic cups stapled to sticks so the cups are just above foliage height. Coat the cups with 1 part petroleum jelly to 1 part household detergent (if you are not prevented by USDA Organic certification) or the insect glues available commercially. Cucumber beetles are attracted by clove and cinnamon oils, which can be used to lure them. Use one trap per 1000 ft2 (92 m2). Another approach is to grow a trap crop of a crop particularly attractive to the beetles, such as Cocozelle summer squash, Seneca or Dark Green zucchini, along the edge of the field. The trap crop is then flamed or tilled in when pest numbers build up. If all else fails, and action is imperative, Spinosad will kill them. Neem doesn’t kill them, but does deter them.

Ice Cream personal sized melon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Diseases of Melons

To minimize diseases, choose disease-resistant melon varieties, provide favorable growing conditions, plow in or remove and compost any plant refuse, and control insect pests. Diseased foliage reduces the ability of the fruit to develop sugars.

In warm, humid climates like ours, melons are subject to powdery mildew, which can wipe out a melon crop if not caught in time. Mildewed leaves cannot photosynthesize well, so the yield and flavor of the melons will not be as good.

There are good photos in Identifying Diseases of Vegetables from Penn State. The University of Tennessee has a concise list of melon diseases and pests in its publication Producing Cantaloupes in Tennessee. The Cornell University Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management has information on dealing organically with most common diseases:

  • Angular Leaf Spot (bacterial) occurs during cool, wet weather. Symptoms include interveinal browning of the leaf and small round spots on the fruit. The leaf damage is tan, not dark.
  • Anthracnose, a fungus disease, is most common during warm rainy weather. It causes angular haloed dark-brown spots on the leaves and dark, round, sunken spots on the fruit.
  • Bacterial Wilt (Erwinia) causes sudden dramatic wilting and death of the vines.
  • Black Rot/Gummy Stem Blight (Didymella bryoniae) is a fungus occurring with cool or warm wet weather.
  • Downy Mildew occurs in wet, cool spells and plants may recover if the weather heats up.
  • Mosaic Virus causes a yellow and green mottling of the leaves and reduces plant vigor.
  • Phytophthora Blight occurs in some regions but not others.
  • Powdery Mildew occurs during hot, dry spells.
  • Scab is not usually a problem to those growing resistant varieties. The fungus, Cladosponum cucumerinum, is worse in cold wet weather. Try compost teas or baking soda spray.
Pike muskmelons being harvested August 26.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Harvesting Melons

See my post on harvesting melons

“Days to maturity” in catalogs are usually from direct seeding; subtract about 10 days to calculate from transplanting to harvest date. At the beginning of July our Asian melons start coming in, following those, our Kansas muskmelons.

I recommend harvesting daily, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases.

With muskmelons, when the background-color of the skin beneath the “netting” changes from gray-green to buff or a yellowish color, the melon is almost ripe. A honeydew melon will turn a light yellow-white color when it’s ripe.

“Full slip” is the term for melons that separate cleanly from the stem with only the very lightest pressure. Waiting too long leads to rotten fruit, especially in hot weather. Look carefully at the point where the stem joins the melon, and as it ripens you will see a circular crack start to open around the stem. This small disk of melon stays with the stem when it slips off the vine. More usually, growers give the stems a “little nudge” to see if the melon will fall off the vine. Depending on the delay between harvest and sale, you may need to pick at half-slip or three-quarter slip (when half or a quarter of the stem disk sticks and breaks rather than slipping free). Harvest your melons at half-slip if you are going away for the weekend, or you worry the groundhogs will get it if you don’t. But if you are harvesting to eat right away, harvest at full slip for best flavor and aroma.

Ripe Mayor Canary melon.
Photo Wren Vile

Crenshaw and Canary melons require a good tug (“forced slip”). Honeydew, Charentais, and Piel de Sapo must be cut from the vine – don’t wait for them to slip!

If you are growing melons on a large scale, it will be worth buying a refractometer to test sugar levels. Melons at full slip should register 12-14%, while those at half-slip should show at least 10%. Half of the final sugars accumulate in the last week of ripening. Full flavor develops a day or two after picking, but the sugar content does not increase. I like nothing better than eating fruit fresh from the field, still warm from the sun.

Melons do not need to be rushed to the cooler as greens and sweet corn do, so they can be picked and set in the shade until a full load of produce is ready to be moved. Melons are subject to sun-scald if left unprotected in the sun after harvest.

Kansas muskmelon.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Melon Storage

Storage time for melon depends on the type. Relative humidity should be 85-95% for best results. Refrigeration is a tad too cold. Honeydew can be stored up to three weeks at 50°F (10°C). Store other melons at 45-50°F (7-10°C) for 7-14 days.

Muskmelons can be stored at 36-41°F (2-5°C) and 95% relative humidity, for up to 2 weeks.

Muskmelon bruising and splitting can happen if melons are dropped more than 8” (20 cm) onto hard surfaces. When they are stacked more than six layers deep or are transported over rough roads, pressure bruising can result, leading to discolored flesh.

Sun Jewel Asian melon. Fast-maturing “early” melons can also be grown late in the season.
Photo Mary Kranz

Season Extension for Melons

Early crops can be grown in a hoophouse, using transplants, with rowcover while the nights are chilly. Research at Virginia State University has shown success with Asian melons transplanted into hoophouses at the end of March at Randolph Farm, in Petersburg, Virginia.

Late crops can be covered with rowcover to fend off a few light frosts. Pollinators won’t be able to get at the flowers, but that doesn’t matter if you already have enough fruits on the plants. You can pinch off immature fruits to concentrate the plants’ energy into ripening the bigger fruits. It isn’t worth it to coddle every last little nubbin of a fruit, as the smallest ones won’t ripen in cool temperatures and will get killed by heavier frosts.

A true cantaloupe melon: Noir des Carmes. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Melon Seed Saving

Melon varieties need to be isolated by 660’ (200 m) for home use, and a minimum of 0.5-1 mile (0.8-1.6 km) for seed for sale. Note that all 8 melon groups cross with each other.

Resources for Growing Melons

Melons for the Passionate Grower, Amy Goldman

ATTRA, Cucumber Beetles: Organic and Biorational Integrated Pest Management

Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Guide for Identification and Management of Diseases of Cucurbit Vegetable Crops (Cantaloupe, Cucumber, Pumpkin, Squash and Watermelon)

Success with Growing Melons, Part 1

 

Pike muskmelon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I have written a couple of posts about growing melons, so go to those links for the basics. Here I am going to dive deep into tips for increasing your success by paying attention to the details. I dove so deep I made two pots. part 2 will follow in a couple of weeks.

I wrote a post, Fruit for the Month: July, in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate, with melons as the focus. In our climate, July is the month to start harvesting muskmelons (often called cantaloupes), Asian melons, and canary melons. Watermelons are slower to ripen.

Basic needs for success with growing melons

Melons love warm, sunny days and need 80-100 days from seed sowing to harvest. For good production, melons need warm weather, along with a steady supply of water. Melon plants also need good air circulation, so leaves and fruit can dry fairly quickly after dew or rainfall. To help prevent the spread of diseases, rotate crops and avoid growing them where other cucurbits were planted in the previous year or two.

Melons thrive in well-drained soil, sandy loam, or in clay soils that have been good levels of organic matter, so long as they get plenty of sunshine and warmth. Soil pH should be 6-7 for healthy melons and good yields. Encourage drought-resilient crops by using drip irrigation, so that roots grow deep. Look for resistance to diseases you know to be a problem in your area.

They have no frost tolerance. Vines can sprawl and cover a 4’ (1.2 m) bed, or fill even a 7’ (2.13 m) row when grown on the flat, and for a longer harvest from each planting, do not crowd them.

A melon plant in July. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Melon seed specs are the same as cucumbers for size and weight: 1000 seeds/oz, 36 seeds/gm. 0.5oz sows 100′, 6 oz/1000’ at 6 seeds/ft. (100 seeds, or 11gm/m at 2.5 cm spacing.). Melon yields will be affected by irrigation during fruit development, but not by watering levels during vegetative or flowering stages. Adequate water is especially important in the seedling stage and during fruiting. Marketable yields of muskmelons can be 7,000-10,000 fruits per acre (17,500-25,000 per hectare) when grown on plastic mulch, and down to half that on bare ground. Most melon plants will yield 3 or 4 good melons.

 

Types of melons

Cucumis Melon Varieties

Jeff McCormack of Saving Our Seeds distinguishes 8 types of Cucumis melon:

  • Cucumis melo reticulatus Muskmelons (which we commonly call cantaloupes) are in this group. They have orange or green flesh and usually have netted skin. They slip from the vine when ripe (perhaps with a nudge).
  • True cantaloupes, Cucumis melo cantalupensis, are rare in the US. They are rough and warty rather than netted. Fedco Seeds sells Prescott Fond Blanc and Petit Gris de Rennes. Charentais melons are true cantaloupes. They are smaller, round, good-flavored orange-fleshed melons. I have successfully grown 78-day Savor, a 2lb (0.9kg) melon with a green-grey skin and deep orange flesh.
  • Cucumis melo inodorus is the group of winter melons: Casabas, Crenshaws, Honeydews and Canary melons. They have a smooth rind, no musky odor, and they must be cut from the vine – they will not slip. Crenshaw melons are large oblong 78-day melons with light yellow skin and very aromatic pale creamy orange flesh. Canary melons are smooth yellow 4lb (1.8kg) fruits with white flesh and are quite sweet.75 days to maturity. We have had good success with Mayor. Honeydew melons are fast-maturing, smooth skinned oval melons, usually with pale-green flesh, although Honey Orange is salmon-colored. 3lbs (1.4kg), 74 days.

    Mayor canary melon. Photo Wren Vile
  • Cucumis melo dudaim includes Plum Granny and Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon, grown for aroma, not flavor.
  • The four groups less-common in the US are m. flexuosus (snake melons including Armenian cucumbers), C. m. conomon (Asian and Oriental pickling melons), C. m. chito (mango melon and others named after other fruits), C. m. momordica (snap melons).

Of these types, we mostly grow muskmelons. Externally, they turn beige and slip from the vine when ripe. They have a yellowish-buff skin with a raised netting, and sometimes lengthwise sutures (ribbing).  They have soft sweet orange flesh, with a complex sweet aromatic flavor, and the 3–7lbs (1.5–3kg) fruits take 75-84 days to mature. They are sometimes divided into two types: Eastern varieties are sutured (scalloped in shape) and can have a very short shelf life, while Western ones are typically not sutured but are netted (covered with a corky mesh of lines), and they will usually hold for two weeks after harvest. I see many netted and scalloped melons, so I don’t use this classification.

Kansas muskmelon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Kansas (90d from transplanting) is an heirloom muskmelon with excellent flavor, fine texture and enough sturdiness to stand up to humid weather and variable rainfall. The 4lb (1.8 kg), oval fruits are sutured and moderately netted. They are hardy, productive, with good resistance to sap beetles that can destroy fruit of other varieties. They ripen almost all the way out to the rind (not much waste!).   Pick these at full slip, and be sure to inhale the aroma at the stem end, as you carry them to the table.

Pike (85d) (see photo at top of the post) was bred for growing in unirrigated clay soil. It is vigorous, high-yielding, disease-resistant and (depending on irrigation) it produces 3-7lb (1.4-3.1 kg) fruits with great flavor. We have also had success with Edisto 47 (88d OP) about 6-7″ (15-17 cm) in diameter.  With resistance to ALS, PM, and DM, it exceeds the disease resistance of many hybrids. Hales Best has also done well here. For Downy mildew resistance, tolerance to cucumber beetles, and great flavor, grow Trifecta from Commonwealth Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Trifecta muskmelons from Commonwealth Seeds.

Other melon types

 The University of Kentucky has a publication on specialty melons.

Sun Jewel Asian melon. Photo Mary Kranz

Fastest to produce a crop are the 65-day Asian melons such as Torpedo (replaced Sun Jewel), or Early Silver Line. A good type for people with short growing seasons, provided you can make a warm spot for them. These 1-2lb (0.5-1kg) melons have refreshing crisp white flesh and are pleasantly sweet without over-doing it. The long oval fruits average 7″ x 3 1/2″ and are pale yellow with shallow white sutures (“seams”). Some people disparage them as “cucumber melons,” but their good points are earliness, tolerance of chilly weather, being easy to grow and having a pleasant flavor. They ripen to a more buttery yellow and slip off the vine when ripe. Plants are resistant to downy and powdery mildews, and can be very productive. We buy seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Galia tropical melons have green flesh, yellow-tan skins and a round shape.

Arava Galia-type melon.
Photo Fedco Seeds

Personal-sized melons

I wrote a post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog about personal size melons, something we tried for a couple of years. These “individual serving” melons weigh about 2-2.5 lbs (1 kg) each, compared to standard cantaloupes at 3-6lbs (1.5-2.5kg) each. To serve, just cut in half and scoop out the seeds. Add ice cream if you like. We tried Tasty Bites (they top out at 3lbs/1.4kg) and Sugar Cube 2–2 1/2 lb (1kg). The advantage of having a smaller fruit was not more than the disadvantage of harvesting smaller fruits for us.

Tasty Bites personal-sized melon
Photo Territorial Seeds

Sowing melon seeds indoors

More and earlier success comes with sowing melon seeds indoors, where the right temperatures can happen earlier in the year. Melons are a bit finicky in their youth, but given a strong start, they can do very well. Melons need slightly warmer temperatures than cucumbers. The seeds take 8.4 days to emerge at 68°F (20°C), 4 days at 77°F (25°C), and 3.1 days at 86°F (30°C).

Cucurbits are not very easily transplanted, so choose a method that minimizes root damage, such as soil blocks, Winstrip trays or 2” (5 cm) deep cell flats that are easy to eject plants from. Sow 2-3 seeds per cell 0.5” (1 cm) deep.

Watermelon transplants in a Winstrip plug flat. Watermelons give earlier harvests from transplants, and plants in plug flats transplant easier then from open flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow 3-4 weeks before you intend to plant out: we sow our first melons 4/15 to transplant with hoops and rowcover 5/6, which is a week after our last frost date. Temperatures below 45°F (7°C) can stunt growth. If the spring is cold, just wait it out. Melons will do OK with fluctuating temperatures, provided they are not too cold.

After germination, the temperature should be reduced to 75°F (24°C). We always ensure our melons get a spot in the greenhouse with very good light and no drafts.

Keep the soil moist and when seedlings have reached 2” (5cm) in height, single them (thin to one plant per cell) by cutting off weak seedlings at soil level, leaving one strong seedling per pot or cell. Keep temperature above 70°F (21°C) during the day and 60°F (16°C) at night.

Once the first true leaves appear, lower the temperature to 65°F (18°C) and reduce watering a little. Cucurbit seedlings are sometimes damaged by foliar sprays, especially ones including soaps, so avoid killing by mistaken kindness.

Harden off the plants for a week, by reducing water, before you set them into the garden. Set them outside in a shady area on warm days, gradually increasing the time outside each day from one hour to two hours, to three, and so on. Alternatively, use shadecloth and increase the sun exposure by an hour a day.

If you want a faster harvest than you’d get from direct sowing, but you don’t want to do transplants, you can chit (pre-sprout) the seed. Put the seed on damp paper towels, roll them up and put the bundles in plastic bags loosely closed, or plastic sandwich boxes, not sealed. Keep at 70-85°F (21-29°C). Check twice a day (this also introduces fresh air to the seeds), and sow before the root reaches the length of the seed. Seeds which are already sprouting will not need more watering after sowing until the seedlings emerge, unless the soil is dry as dust.

Stephen Albert writes the very informative Harvest to Table website, which includes step-by-step details on pre-sprouting melon (and other) seeds. It takes only a few days, and gets the tiny seedling through the tough seed coat. How to Plant and Grow Melons

Direct sowing of melon seeds

Summer squash plants under ProtekNet insect netting.
Pam Dawling

For sowing in open ground wait until the soil temperatures is 59°F (15°C), the minimum to germinate melon seeds. We make a furrow 0.5-0.75” (1.3-1.8cm) deep, water the furrow if the soil is dry, put one seed every 6” (15 cm), pull the soil back over the seeds and tamp down. Growers commonly space seeds at 2” (5cm), but using the wider spacing gives us no problems, and uses less seed. We cover all our early cucurbit sowings with rowcover until the plants start to flower (about a month) as we have many pests and diseases. Later sowings get ProtekNet insect netting rather than rowcover. When the plants start to flower, we remove the covers, hoe and thin to 18-24” (45-60 cm). Melons can use 7.5-15 ft2 (0.7-1.4 m2) each on plastic mulch, and double that space on bare ground. Melon rows are typically up to 6-10’ (2-3 m) apart.

It is possible to sow cucurbits through plastic mulch by jabbing holes in the plastic and popping the seeds in. This method leads to earlier harvests, as the mulch warms the soil, and there will be no weeds.

For a main crop, we direct sow 5/25 and 6/25. Maximum germination temperature is 100°F (38°C).

Transplanting melons

Melons are admittedly delicate to transplant. Wait for the right conditions and take great care when handling the plants.

Check your local weather forecast to ensure that your melon plants will not be subjected to chilly, windy conditions when they are newly transplanted. Warm overcast conditions late in the day are best for transplanting, and rowcover (preferably on hoops to reduce abrasion) can be used to provide warmer and less breezy conditions.

Before starting transplanting, check the soil temperature: the soil should be at least 70°F (21°C) for melon survival. Melon plants exposed to temperatures cooler than recommended might not set fruit later on. One way to speed up soil warming is to cover the area with black plastic mulch for 1-3 weeks prior. Cut an x-shaped slit where for each plant and hold the edges of the plastic down with rocks. We space our melons at 2’ (60cm) apart in the row, with rows 6’ (2m) apart.

To help reduce transplant shock, water the flat (or pots) well the day before and again one hour before transplanting. Avoid disturbing the roots when transplanting. Cucurbit transplants are often leggy, and they should be planted so that the entire stem up to the base of the leaves is below soil level, otherwise the fragile stem is liable to get broken. The stems will do better protected in the ground. Water the soil thoroughly. If you are not using plastic mulch, hoe as needed for a few weeks, and wait until hot weather before spreading organic mulch (straw, spoiled hay or dry tree leaves), as this keeps the soil cool, and as I stressed already, melons like heat. Depending on soil fertility, you may want to add fish emulsion to encourage growth.

Another tip for protecting transplants against insect damage is to mix up a kaolin clay soup, invert the plug flat and dip the upside-down plants in the liquid before taking them to be transplanted. Three cups to one gallon of water make up into a suitably thick mix for this technique. Surround is the best-known brand. You can also spray the plants during their growth, with Surround. This does wash off if it rains or you use overhead irrigation, and you will need to reapply (or switch to netting if the plants are not yet flowering.)

Muskmelons flowering in early July. Planted on biodegradable plastic mulch. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Gathered Info on Weeds

Spiny amaranth – a weed to exterminate by careful pulling.
Photo Pam Dawling

Following on from my recent seasonal posts on How to succeed with transplanting crops and Direct sown vegetable crops, I reckon people are now thinking about weeds.

Below is material excerpted from the Sustainable Weed Management chapter in my book Sustainable Market Farming, which was also published in Growing for Market as New Ways to Think About Weeds, back in 2011.

Do you need a justification for having some weeds visible among your crops? Do you crave a system to help you get a grip on your to-do list, so you’re not overwhelmed? Sustainable (or Ecological) Weed Management does all this! In the earlier days of organic farming, maximum use was made of frequent cultivation to kill weeds. Now we know that too-frequent cultivation can cause soil erosion, and that each tilling or deep hoeing stirs air into the soil and speeds combustion of organic matter. The practice of sustainable weed management is about effectiveness – including removing weeds at their most vulnerable stage, or at the last minute before the seed pods explode – and ignoring weeds while they are doing little damage. Work smarter, not harder!

Strawberries need a lot of weeding if grown on bare soil.
Photo Twin Oaks Community (Renee)

A Holistic Approach to Organic Weed Management

As always, strive to restore and maintain balance in the ecosystem. Develop strategies for preventing weeds and for controlling the ones that pop up anyway. An obvious way to prevent weeds is to avoid adding new kinds to any part of your fields. Remove the hitch-hikers from your socks out on the driveway, not when you notice them as you squat to transplant onions! We use our driveway as a convenient place to “roadkill” particularly bad weeds by letting them die in the sun. Beware of Trojan plant swaps (nice plants in soil concealing nasty weed seeds)!

Weeds are not a monolithic enemy, but a diverse cast of characters. Applying biological principles is not an attitude of war, but more like ju-jitsu, using the weaknesses of the weeds to contribute to their downfall. This chapter aims to develop our understanding of weeds and the different types: annuals and perennials; stationary perennials and invasive perennials; cool weather and warm weather types; quick-maturing and slow-maturing types; and what Chuck Mohler (Manage Weeds on Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies) refers to as “Big Bang” types versus “Dribblers”.

One factor to consider is how vulnerable the crop is to damage from that weed at that time. Weeds that germinate at the same time as a vegetable crop usually do not really affect the crop’s growth until they become large enough to compete for moisture and nutrients. If allowed to grow unchecked, however, these early weeds have the greatest potential for reducing crop yields. We need to cultivate or otherwise control weeds before this 2-3 week grace period is over.

The critical period for weed control for the crop is the interval from the end of the initial grace period until the end of the minimum weed-free period, which is approximately the first third to one half of the crop’s life. In other words, the most important time to weed a crop is from 2 weeks after sowing until the crop is half-way to being finished. For vigorous crops like tomato, squash and transplanted brassicas this is four to six weeks; less vigorous crops like onion or carrot need weed-free conditions for eight weeks or more. During that time it is essential to control weeds to prevent loss of yield.

A carpet of weeds, but the crop is easily seen! A good time to hoe!
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Weeds that emerge later have less effect, and ones that emerge quite late in the crop cycle no longer affect the yield of that crop, although their seeds give a reason for removing them to improve future crops.

Know Your Weeds

Learn to identify the major weeds on your farm, and any minor ones that suggest trouble later. Observe and research. Start a Weed Log with a page for each weed. Add information about your quarry’s likes and dislikes, habits and possible weak spots. Find out how long the seeds can remain viable under various conditions, and whether there are any dormancy requirements. Note when it emerges, how soon it forms viable seed (if an annual), when the roots are easiest and hardest to remove from the soil (if a perennial), what time of year it predominates, which plots and which crops have the worst trouble with this weed. Monitor regularly throughout the year, each year. Look back over your records and see if anything you did or didn’t do seems to have made the problem worse or better.

Next think about any vulnerable points in the weed’s growth habit, life cycle, or responses to crops or weather that could provide opportunities for prevention or control. List some promising management options. Try them, record your results, decide what to continue or what to try next.

Most weeds respond well to nutrients, especially nitrogen. If you give corn too much nitrogen, even as compost, the corn productivity will max out and the weeds will use the remaining nutrients. Sun-loving weeds like purslane are more likely to thrive among crops (like carrots and onions) which never cast much shade at any point of their growth. They won’t be a problem for crops that rapidly form canopies that shade the ground.

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

A few weeds, such as giant ragweed, emerge only during a 3-week interval, while others, such as pigweed and velvetleaf, can germinate during a two-month period, if temperatures are warm enough. Galinsoga seeds are short-lived and germinate only near the soil surface, but velvetleaf seeds can lie dormant for years deep in the subsoil, and germinate whenever they get brought close to the surface. Clearly, different strategies work best with different weeds.

Red Root Pigweed is a “Big Bang” weed – the plant grows for a long time, and then all its seeds ripen at once, as the plant starts dying. Most seeds come from a few large plants – pigweed-monsters that mature late in summer can shed 400,000 seeds! Pulling the largest 10% of the weeds can reduce seed production by 90% or better. We used to ignore pigweed growing in our sweetcorn, once it escaped two cultivations, believing anything that big must already have done damage. Now we pull while harvesting. Some pigweeds are as tall as the corn, but most don’t have mature seed heads. Since starting this a few years ago, we have noticed a considerable drop-off in the number of pigweeds we have to deal with. This is different from the “Seed Dribblers” like galinsoga, which mature seed while still quite small plants, shed some, make some more, and can carry on for a long seed-shedding season.

Silver Queen sweet corn with wilting pulled pigweed amaranth. Corn is a C4 crop, amarnath (pigweed) a C4 weed. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Another useful piece of information is that a constant percentage of the seeds left from one year’s shedding dies each year. For lambsquarters in cultivated soil it’s 31% per year (only 8% in uncultivated soil). The number of seeds declines rapidly at first, but a few seeds persist for a long time. The percentage varies widely among species.

While seeds survive better deeper in the soil, they don’t germinate better down there. Larger seeds can germinate at deeper levels than small seeds. If you are trying to bury seeds deep, use inversion tillage; don’t rely on rototilling, as seeds somehow manage to stay near the surface with rotary tilling. Chuck Mohler has verified this with colored beads.

Most of the weeds in cultivated soils are annuals, but some of the worst ones are perennials, either stationary (tap-rooted) perennials like docks and dandelions, or wandering/invasive perennials with tubers, rhizomes or bulbs (Bermuda grass, quackgrass). Stationary perennials in their first year act like biennials – leaves, roots, but no flowers or seeds. In annually tilled areas, they get killed in year one and don’t often establish. Wandering perennials are a more difficult problem, and understanding apical dominance is important in tackling them – see Reducing the Strength of Perennial Weed Roots and Rhizomes in the book’s chapter.

Burdock is a large perennial weed with a huge root. Photo Bridget Aleshire

The chapter also includes information on Prevention of Weed Germination, Reduction of Weed Seeding, Reduction of Viability of Seeds, Reducing the Strength of Perennial Weed Roots and Rhizomes, and Two Examples (galinsoga and nut sedge).

Knowing and understanding the particular weeds that are giving you the worst problems enables you to design an approach that includes removing weeds at the most important point in their life-cycle, before they do their worst damage. While focusing on that you can relax and ignore weeds that are not doing much harm.

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I have written here on my website about weeds previously. See my blog posts

Resources on Sustainable Weed Management

My February Gardening and Farming News Roundup

My February Gardening and Farming News Roundup

After a flurry of conferences in November, December and January, I have now updated my Events page.

Events where I will be presenting workshops, that are still to come:

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Lancaster, PA, Feb 8-11, https://pasafarming.org/conference/

Organic Growers School Spring Conference, Mars Hill, NC, Feb 24-26 https://organicgrowersschool.org/conferences/spring/

Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC, March 26-April 1 2023 www.folkschool.org

Mother Earth News Fair, Lawrence, Kansas, April 29-30, 2023.  (Sat-Sun)

Mother Earth News Fair,  Erie, Pennsylvania, July 15-16, 2023

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Daylight Savings Time

Have you ever wondered if farmers really did want DST? The answer is probably not. Read the interesting article in The Modern Farmer

https://modernfarmer.com/2022/03/daylight-saving-time-farmers/

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Millet is Having a Moment. Is the Ancient Grain Ready for a Resurgence?

Also see this article in the Modern Farmer, about 2023 as the UN Year of Millets. This drought-tolerant grain deserves more attention.

https://modernfarmer.com/2022/12/year-of-millet/

Jean Hediger grows Proso millet on her Nunn, Colorado farm
Photography courtesy of Jean Hediger

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Jumping Worms are also Having a Moment

Invasive Jumping Worm
Matt Bert, Piedmont Master Gardeners

The January newsletter of the Piedmont Master Gardeners (The Garden Shed) has this sobering article about Invasive Jumping Worms by Cathy Caldwell. The article includes the all-important information on how to distinguish an invasive jumping worm from any other kind of earthworm (it’s not hard!), and what to do if you find one.

https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/invasive-jumping-worms/

WSLS.com/Destructive jumping worms spotted throughout Virginia

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Climate-Resilient (Heat-tolerant) Vegetable Varieties

by Jon Braunfeld

Heatmaster tomatoes.
Jon Braunfeld, Piedmont Master Gardeners

Another article in the January Garden Shed has helpful information on heat-tolerant vegetable varieties. In good time for us to order seeds and try some tomato varieties alongside our usual ones

https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/climate-resilient-vegetable-varieties/