Permaculture questioned, Growing for Market, Mother Earth News blogpost, Longhorn tick.

I’ve long had some misgivings about the almost religious fervor of some permaculturists, while at the same time appreciating their seriousness about sustainable land use. (In fact I have written for Permaculture North America, and I have friends who are Permaculturists.) My first impressions of Permaculture were that it was a combination of common sense farming practices gussied up with new labels, other ideas that seemed to me very impractical, and ideas that might work fine in the tropics but not so well in the rest of the world. But it seemed rude to say so publicly. Like picking a fight with allies when there are so many more important campaigns. And more recently I have met some gardeners and even farmers who apply the Permaculture ideas that work in their context, without becoming evangelical about it. I would love to read a practical book written by someone farming commercially, explaining how they apply some of the Permaculture ideas, and make a living.

Curtis Stone (author of The Urban Farmer) has given all this consideration and has written an interesting, thoughtful article in his blog From the Field Friday.

It’s titled What Permaculture got Wrong – Dispelling Five Common Myths

Curtis describes how many people new to farming are a bit starry-eyed, and are (as he was) inspired by Permaculture ideas. In his experience, many of the promises of Permaculture don’t pan out, especially if you try to make them work on a commercial scale as opposed to a hobby, when it doesn’t matter how long a method takes, or how much money it costs.

He has identified five slogans of Permaculture he believes should disappear. He wants to save farmers from burning out while holding these unrealistic tenets. At the same time, he is not disrespecting any individual Permaculture teachers or students, authors or farmers. He just wants everyone to have realistic expectations and for commercial growers to use viable methods.

Permaculture aims to keep the topsoil in place, along with all its biodiversity, and grow food, following patterns in nature. This is a great approach. The problems come with some of the specific prescriptions. Curtis Stone labels five problematic cultural memes The Self-Sustaining Farm; The Lazy Gardener; Mulch Everything; Swale Everything; and No Pests!

The Self-Sustaining Farm

The Forest Garden can work for someone with enough land, providing food for just a few people. There are fruits and nuts, some perennial vegetables, and annual vegetables between the trees. But in order for a food system to feed lots of people, we invented agriculture (which is not natural) to dependably produce quantities of food in an efficient (affordable) way. Most vegetables are annuals, not perennials, and that where the work is, and the bulk of our food. A lot of food can be produced efficiently from a relatively small area of land using annual crops. A Forest Garden is not going to feed the world, and it’s unfair to new farmers to tell them it will. It’s also untrue to suggest that forest, orchard and vineyard crops require almost no work once they are established. Growing food for lots of people is hard work, even when you apply smart methods.

The Lazy Gardener

This idea comes from Bill Mollison, suggesting you can plant crops and ignore them, and get good harvests. Planting potatoes by covering them with mulch rather than soil is one suggestion. Most of these “Lazy Gardener” ideas are not workable on a commercial scale. You can ignore weeds and use “lazy” methods if you are not earning your living from farming, or expecting to feed many people. It’s a lifestyle choice, not a career.

Mulch Everything

Straw mulch is very popular with some Permaculturists. It is used in thick layers to smother weeds. It also adds organic matter to the soil. Straw is the stems of small grains. It’s not bio-regional where I live, or where most of us live. If you don’t see fields of wheat, barley, oats, rye in your area, straw would have to be shipped in. It won’t be cheap. It’ll be more expensive if it’s organic. Curtis Stone points out that it is not really sustainable on a commercial scale to cover all the soil with straw. It also doesn’t work well for fast turn-over crops, where you want to plant a follow-on crop (to get most use of your land). Plus, it keeps the soil cool, which is not what you need for warm-season crops. While it can work for home gardeners to push aside mulch to plant two squash plants, it’s not practical for a 200 foot row of squash. (I always enjoyed Ruth Stout’s little books, but I wondered how she could afford all the straw.)

Swale Everything

Swales are shallow ditches running along the contours, to catch and hold water – a lovely idea to conserve water resources. Constructing these on a farm scale is time-consuming. Navigating swales while growing rows or beds of annual crops is not very practical. Not all soils or all crops benefit from water retention. Curtis Stone claims he has heard of permaculture consultants putting in swales which led to too much water retention and then landslides! Nowadays Key-line plowing has made water-retention far more practical. But we shouldn’t all install water retention everywhere. The need will depend on the soil, the climate and the crop.

No Pests!

This slogan I have also taken issue with, myself. It’s the mistaken belief that if you garden or farm well, you won’t have any pests. It’s a “Blame the Victim” thing – if you have pests, you must be doing something wrong. I’m all for planting flowers to attract beneficial insects, and encouraging bees, good bugs and birds. But pests and diseases do still happen to good people! It’s important to work to prevent and avoid pests and diseases – but still, keep on scouting! You can’t safely assume you won’t get pests.

Curtis says that for him the oddest irony is the people in Permaculture who critique other farmers as if one problem is the root cause of all that goes wrong, while themselves believing that a particular permaculture idea applies always and everywhere, rather than being dependent on the wider context. This he calls “a monoculture of thinking”. Truly there is no one sustainable solution for all farming situations. It’s easier to have simple beliefs, but it doesn’t work. Every permaculture method is not going to work on every farm. We need to stay adaptable and flexible in our thinking, and respect and look for diversity in our approach.


The June/July issue of Growing for Market magazine is out. The lead article, by Carolina Lees, is for farmers who are venturing into hiring employees. How to benefit from the help, absorb their enthusiasm, and also reduce confusion of crops, tools, harvest specs? How to balance teaching and doing? How to balance the desire for competence and success with compassion for learners? How to change from an idiosyncratic, spur of the moment decision-making to something that’s easier for others to predict and understand? As Carolina Lees says:

“You can get away with a lot less training if you can make the task easier to learn in the first place.”

Her suggestions include reducing the number of different varieties, labelling all beds clearly, having clear standards and measurements, having only one kind of watering wand and timer, only a few sizes and types of harvest container, having clear places where information is written and stored, using checklists, so workers can be more independent.

Jesse Frost writes about making effective use of social media to increase farm sales. You Tube and email might do better than Facebook. Paying to advertise on Facebook can be more effective than merely posting something. And remember that people want a personal connection, not a hard sell.

Jenny Quiner writes about her urban farmstand’s struggle with changing county regulations. This will be useful to anyone in a similar situation.

Anne and Eric Nordell, well-known long-established horse-powered vegetable farmers from Pennsylvania, have been re-thinking plant spacings, after surveying seven other teamsters’ cropping methods. They compare the plant densities used by horse farmers with tow common tractor-farming spacings and two intensive bed densities. Food for thought.

Ellen Polishuk has interviewed Joanna Letz of Bluma Flower Farm for this issue.


A misty November morning in the hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

I have a post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog: 20 Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

If you have been wondering whether a hoophouse (high tunnel) would be worthwhile, this list of twenty reasons to have one can help you decide. The benefits include more and better crops, extended seasons, food self-reliance and a very pleasant work environment.


Longhorn tick.
Photo West Virginia State Department of Agriculture

Don’t think of this as ending with bad news, think of it as saving your health. There is a new tick. The Longhorn Tick has now been found in West Virginia and Virginia, as well as New Jersey.

The longhorn tick is small and difficult to detect.  It is known to carry several diseases that can affect humans, as well as livestock, including some diseases that are not prevalent in the United States, but have affected people in Asia.

This species was first identified by the Animal and Plant Inspection Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Jersey in November 2017. The West Virginia State Department of Agriculture has confirmed the presence of the tick in West Virginia. The longhorn ticks were identified by samples collected from two separate farms in Hardy County WV, both of which are near the Virginia border.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed the presence of the tick in Warren County in northern Virginia (on horses), and in Albemarle County on a calf. A list of common ticks found in Virginia can be found here.

 

 

Challenges with hoophouse squash

 

Gentry yellow squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

We grow one bed (90 ft or so) of yellow squash in our hoophouse, to extend the season earlier. This year it is a dismal failure. We have had splendid success some years, with good harvests for several weeks before our outdoor squash are ready. What has changed?

One aspect is climate change including more variable temperatures in spring. This makes it harder to get frost-tender crops started in our greenhouse, and causes us to delay transplanting into our hoophouse, to avoid a wipe-out. We do have good thick rowcover to put over the hoophouse crops, but rowcover can only do so much. Also, it’s not simply a matter of life or death. Extended cold can permanently stunt tender plants.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Striped Cucumber Beetles

Our second biggest problem is striped cucumber beetles. We reckon if we can deal with the cucumber beetles in the hoophouse, we’ll be dealing with the mothers of that year’s population, and things won’t get so bad outdoors. Or, rather, if we don’t deal with them in the hoophouse, they’ll get really bad outdoors (we’ve seen that happen on nearby watermelons and squash).

Our approach is to nip the beetles in the squash flowers first thing each morning, with tweezers. It’s important to tackle them early in the morning, because as the day warms, so do they, and they take off flying around, making them hard to catch. We ignore the more numerous, smaller, cucumber flowers, because the beetles prefer squash flowers, and we’re only prepared to spend a limited amount of time on this task.

The hunting season for cucumber beetles here is on average about a month long. In 2017 it was early and only 8 days 4/25 to 5/3. This year we didn’t start till 5/4 and we’re still finding some 6/5.

One year we tried trapping the beetles using pheromone lures from Johnny’s. We hung the pheromone with a yellow sticky card from the wire hoops that previously held up the rowcover. I thought they were successful, but others on the crew didn’t want to use that method again.

One year we sprayed with Spinosad, which is organic and was very effective, but we try to avoid any spraying if we can. Recently we revisited the decision, and re-committed to hand picking.

Yarn-wrapped tweezers intended to kill cucumber beetles and pollinate squash at the same time (with prey).
Photo Pam Dawling

To attempt to deal with our third problem while addressing the second, I just tried wrapping yarn round the tweezer arms, thinking they might do some pollinating for no extra effort, while I hunted beetles. It wasn’t very successful. The tweezers we’re using are very pointed and the yarn slides off. Too much yarn prevents the tweezers closing aggressively enough.

Unpollinated squash
Photo Pam Dawling

Unpollinated squash

Our third problem is unpollinated squash. The baby squash are hollow, and sometimes rot at the ends. We spend too much time removing the unpollinated ones to encourage the plants to try harder producing new squash, and to prevent the spread of molds which sometimes grow on the hopeless squash.

We look for bush varieties, as we don’t want sprawling vines in the hoophouse. In order to get harvests as early as possible we choose varieties that are fast-maturing. Since 2008 we have usually grown Gentry, a hybrid yellow crookneck squash with a bush habit, that mature in just 43 days from sowing in normal temperatures.

Early in the season some varieties of squash produce a lot of female flowers, which can’t get pollinated until some male flowers appear. Low temperatures and high light intensity promote this female sex expression, ie female flowers rather than male flowers. But our problems went on beyond the arrival of male flowers.

In 2006 we grew Zephyr, a beautiful bi-color hybrid yellow squash with green ends, which is our favorite for outdoor crops. It takes 54 days to maturity. In 2007 we grew Zephyr and a few Supersett, a 50-day hybrid crookneck yellow squash. We didn’t choose Supersett again, so I suppose we didn’t prefer it. What did we grow in the first few years 2004-2005? We didn’t keep good records.

In 2015 we tried Slick Pik YS 26, a 49 day hybrid, attracted by the claim to spinelessness. It didn’t do well for us, and we came to call it Slim Pickins. Some of the plants were weird. About 4 out of about 45 plants had darker green leaves and no female flowers. The male flowers were abnormal, halfway to being leaves. The petals were thick and greenish, and the flowers were small. Then the flowers dropped off, producing no fruit, so we didn’t grow that variety again.

Rotting unpollinated squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another option we once tried is a parthenocarpic variety. Parthenocarpic crops can set fruit without pollination. Some squash varieties, like Sure Thing (48d), Partenon (48d), Cavili (48d), and Easypick Gold (50d), are sold on the strength of being very good at setting fruit without any pollinators. See this article for all the details.

It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute – a number of squash varieties have some level of parthenocarpic capability.

In one study of zucchini (see the article link above), fruit set without pollination varied from zero to 42%, depending on the variety. In the 1992 study, 33 varieties of yellow summer squash were compared. Follow-up studies in the next few years. Chefini (51d  Breeder: Petoseed Co (SQ 28) Seems not to be commercially available any more), Gold Strike (a yellow straight-neck squash, likewise seems unavailable), Black Beauty (50d) and Black Magic (50d)  all did well. In a study including yellow squash and zucchini, most of the high-parthenocarpic producers were zucchini rather than yellow squash. Of yellow squash, Gold Strike seems unavailable, but Gold Rush (52d), Golden Glory (50d) look promising

See also Steve Reiners’ paper Producing summer squash without pollination – Ranking varieties

In that study Golden Glory (50d) is the big winner. Runners up are mostly zucchini: Dunja (47d), Noche (48d), Partenon (48d), Costata Romanesco (52d semi- bush variety), Safari (50d), Multipik (50d yellow squash). After that there are several that scored 29% down to 6% in the trial, and then a bunch of zeroes. Our much-beloved Zephyr scores zero in that trial!  I read that the retail demand for yellow squash is less than for zucchini, so most of the research goes into zucchini.

Next year, I’ll propose we try Golden Glory and Noche (a zucchini that does well for us in hot weather). Or perhaps Dunja, which scores higher.

A bee pollinating squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Encourage pollinators

This is something else we could pay more attention to next year. We have now got honeybees again, after several years without. We could also plant a succession of flowers that attract pollinators, timed to flower the same time as the squashes. If we plant them in big pots we can cycle them in and out of the hoophouse for their “work shifts” and retire them when they stop flowering. See this blog post from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: 10 tips for Attracting Bees and other Pollinators and Harvesting Great Cucumbers, Squash and Melons. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association also has some useful info about native squash bees. I’ll need to study up before next spring!

Import pollinators

We could buy boxes of bumblebees from Koppert. But that gets pricey. I prefer attracting existing pollinators.

Squash bugs making more squash bugs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Minor Problems; Squash bugs

We also have squash bugs, but they aren’t such a big problem for us.

Squash bug eggs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Time to watch for pests

The season is warming up and insect pests are jumping into action. Here’s some old foes and some new ones to watch out for, and some friends too.

Gray garden slugs, Deroceras reticulatum, with chewing damage and slime trails on leaves.
Photo UC IPM

Slugs and Snails

We have very few snails, and compared to some other places I’ve lived, few slugs. But the slugs we do have really like the hoophouse. I found two this morning on the cucumber plants. (It was an overcast morning – they don’t like high temperatures.) My reaction was to flip them onto the path and stomp on them. We rarely have to take stronger action. If we do, we sink shallow plastic dishes into the soil, with the rim at soil level and fill the dishes with a dilute version of beer or soda, or sugary water. I don’t know if it has to be fermenting to be attractive to slugs, but any sugary liquid in our hoophouse warmth is going to start fermenting after a day. If numbers are really high and damage is extensive, we need to hunt the slugs down. Do this at dusk or later, with a headlamp and either a pair of scissors or a bucket of soapy water.

There is a good blog post by Joe Kemble on the Alabama Commercial Horticulture website:

Slugs or Snails in Your Greenhouse or High Tunnel? What Do I Do?

The post helps us understand our foe:

“Slugs are very sensitive to ambient temperature and can detect temperature changes as gradual as 2°F per hour. Slugs prefer to remain at 62 to 64°F although they lay eggs and develop normally (but slower) at lower temperatures. Development ceases below 41°F. Slugs can withstand slight freezing temperatures although their tendency to take shelter in cold weather protects them from freezing. Slugs try to escape from temperatures higher than 70°F. “

Joe Kemble offers  4 approaches to dealing with them: trapping, hunting, iron phosphate (Sluggo) and metaldehyde bait. Metaldehyde works very quickly, but it can poison and even kill dogs, cats and other mammals that might feed on it. So I don’t recommend that! Iron phosphate is much safer but also much slower – snails can take up to seven days to die. Neither should be used near waterways. Use of Sluggo has been allowed if conditions leave no less toxic option, under the National Organic Standards since 2006

Another good resource is the UC IPM site which takes the IPM steps one at a time and applies them to slugs. How to Manage Pests/ Pests in Gardens and Landscapes/ Snails and Slugs which has good photos.

Grow Smart Grow Safe  looks at many options. See their Table of Molluscicides. It explains all the current options.

Jumping Worms

Invasive Jumping Worm
Photo Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A new troublesome  invasive earthworm has arrived from East Asia. Here is a handy ID card

“Jumping worms (Amynthas spp.) dwell on the soil surface and eat leaf litter.  They can turn up almost anywhere from urban parks, to suburban backyards, to rural forests. Because they reproduce on their own, a single worm can start a new population. You can help prevent jumping worms from spreading to new areas by knowing what to look for.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has good information, including photos.

These worms eat up all the leaf litter under trees, causing desert-like conditions. The surface soil becomes grainy, with a texture like dry coffee grounds, and no longer supports the growth of under-story plants.The 1.5″-8″ worms thrash around if picked up. Visually they can be distinguished from other earthworms with a clitellum (saddle), because theirs is cloudy white and smooth.

Use the jumping worm identification card [PDF] and brochure [PDF] and watch for this pest. Report finds to the DNR or your Extension Office.

————————————————————————————————————–

Spotted Lanternfly.
Photo from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Spotted Lanternfly

Another invasive alien is the Spotted Lanternfly, a pretty hopper. Lycorma delicatula (White), an invasive plant hopper, has been discovered in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It is native to China, India, Vietnam, and introduced to Korea where it has become a major pest.  As well as Eastern Pennsylvania, the pest has been found in Virginia, Maryland and New York.

The red bands on the hind wings are not visible when the insect is at rest with the wings folded up over the back. It can easily blend in on tree bark. Note that the earlier stages of this pest look very different. The first nymphs are black and white, later ones, red, black and white. All stages are spotted.

Adult Spotted Lanternfly (pinned). Photo USDA Aphis

This insect has the potential to greatly impact almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, hops, nectarines, peaches, plums and walnuts, as well as these trees: maples, oaks, pines, poplars, sycamores and willows.

The signs and symptoms of a possible infestation include

  • Plants that ooze or weep and have a fermented smell
  • Buildup of sticky fluid (honeydew) on plants and on the ground underneath infested plants
  • Sooty mold on the infested plants

If you find a spotted lanternfly, report it to your Extension Office.

Click here to learn more from Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and here to read more from USDA APHIS.

——————————————————————————————————————–

A zipper spider on a tomato plant, catching anything that lands on its web. Photo Wren Vile

We mostly have good bugs. While working in the hoophouse this morning, harvesting scallions out of the way of advancing enlarging cucumber plants, I also found many tiny zipper spiders and their tiny webs. These will get impressively huge. We made a point of saving their egg-cases on the bows of our hoophouse over the winter.

Zipper spider egg cases overwintering in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

I also saw a tiny praying mantis, another creature whose egg-cases we make a point of storing in the hoophouse over the winter.

And I saw a tattered Monarch butterfly. I had to check the Monarch or Viceroy? Page to be sure.