Resilience: Survive, thrive and farm another season!

 

A willow tree behind out herb garden.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it.” Sir Walter Scott

I’m reading Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture, (review coming soon) and thinking about how growers thrive under varying situations, some of which we have no control over. To adjust to changing weather conditions, to continue after challenges and get the best possible outcome whatever happens, we need to be alert, adaptable and quick on our feet, a bit like a Ju-Jitsu practitioner.

Being ready to tackle whatever happens includes recognizing and building in many options, keeping all options open until the future is clearer, and knowing when and which way to jump. It involves being prepared with needed equipment (or at least phone numbers), and having our filing systems be accessible all year, not in a big heap!

It includes getting good at understanding current conditions and predicting the future, getting to grips with radar maps and how to use Growing Degree Days. It involves keeping records of when certain flowers bloom (phenology), and soil temperatures. This information helps us figure out when to plant according to actual conditions, rather than simply by the calendar, a method which is not useful as climate change takes hold.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Fall deadnettle germination shows that conditions are cool enough to sow spinach. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Making good assessments of conditions is the first step in cultivating adaptability. The second necessary skill-set is the ability to know how to make a swift and effective decision and locate the resources to put that decision into practice. This includes information about soil temperatures and how long various crops take to emerge. Also, knowing how summer crops will respond to extra high temperatures. And how winter crops will respond to horrifying low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses on a struggling crop and till it in? I do a weekly tour of the gardens and re-prioritize tasks. Growing food is an organic process, non-linear!

These two skills are followed by a review process, so we can learn from what went wrong, as well as what went right! Usually this involves record-keeping, (dates, actions and results) to inform next season. You can list other possible responses to fine-tune your choices next time. Record-keeping can include photos, audio recording, video clips. Whatever works. You may only need to tweak your response in future, or you may want a completely different approach. One of our garden mantras is “Never repeat the same mistake two years running.”

Get Ready for Farming After Anything

Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times recommends building in slack, rather than planning to work flat out every day. When something unexpected happens, you’ll have a bit of extra time available to tackle the problem. Personal troubles like injury, health challenges, or family emergencies; or household events like financial problems can require time focused elsewhere; or disastrous weather that affects everyone around you. On her website, Carol has an interview called Food in Uncertain Times: How to Grow and Store the Five Crops You Need to Survive. She says: “The resilient garden is designed and managed so that when things go wrong, they have less impact.” Grow food requiring minimal external inputs, know how to grow staple crops and save seeds. Some years you won’t need to employ these skills, but you’ll be ready when you do.

Being Flexible About Growing Food

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

We have a Garden Shift Honchos Guide to help whoever is leading the crew. It includes general guidelines: “Try to at least get the harvesting done, whatever the weather, (unless torrential rain, tornado, ice storm, thunder and lightning).” It suggests how to choose jobs from our posted task list. My priority sequence is harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand weed. The Honchos Guide has hints for contingencies:

  • If the day is likely to be very hot, get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).
  • If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.
  • After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains. Standing on long boards is an option for harvesting or planting.
  • If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. It’s a waste of time to hoe if it’s about to rain, or that crop is due for overhead irrigation. Don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain or irrigation. They’ll re-root.
  • If you feel frazzled: choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.
  • Choreographing the crew can be hard. It’s handy if everyone finishes harvesting around the same time. Perhaps spread out at first for miscellaneous harvesting, and then end up together on the crop that takes a long time.

Building in Options on the Farm

Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, advocates for constructing buildings that are easy to modify later, in gradual or drastic ways to meet the changing needs of the people inside. Farms can be looked at similarly. Keep as many options as possible (for crops, cover crops, crop layout) open for as long as possible.

It can be helpful to do some scenario planning, which I learned about in The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz. Scenario Planning is a method of making flexible long-term plans, using stories (scenarios) to help us visualize different possible futures that include not only factors we don’t control, like the weather or the market’s enthusiasm for bulb fennel, but also intangibles such as our hopes and fears, beliefs and dreams. Different combinations of uncertainties and possibilities, including interactions of some major variables in plausible but uncomfortable as well as hoped-for combinations are used to create each scenario.

Sometimes the easiest way to compare scenarios is to set options out in a grid. For instance, in choosing which cover crop to sow following a spring crop that we clear in August-October in zone 7, we can say that the main variables are whether the season is dry or wet, and whether we are early or late planting. We can sow oats from mid-August to early September, to winter-kill, or winter rye once we reach September 1 (before that we risk the rye heading up before winter and self-seeding).

Dry and Early: Sow cowpeas or soybeans with oats, for a winter-killed cover crop. Dry and Late: Sow winter rye or wheat alone.
Wet and Early: Sow a clover mix in August, or hairy vetch with winter rye, 9/1-10/10 Wet and Late: Sow Austrian winter peas with winter rye

Often there are more variables, such as weediness. We might undersow our fall broccoli with a clover mix in August, intending the clovers to become a Green Fallow plot for the following season. The next summer, we assess the situation. If the weeds are bad in July, we disk in the clovers and sow sorghum-sudan hybrid mixed with soy, as a winter-killed cover crop. If all looks well in July, but the weeds are gaining the upper hand in August, we have the option of tilling it in, and sowing oats mixed with soy. If the clover is growing well, and the weeds are not bad, we over-winter the patch, and disk it in February.

Broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Vegetable Crop Options

We have a few options recorded in our calendar:

  • If spring is cold and wet, grow transplants for the second planting of cucumbers and summer squash.
  • If the winter squash patch is too wet to disk, grow transplants, but don’t sow later-maturing varieties.
  • If the soil is to wet to hill the spring potatoes, flame weed instead.

Abundance Options

What to do if your yields are higher than planned: increase sales by giving out samples and recipes, and feature the item on your website. Find sales to new customers (restaurants), process the crop for future out-of-season sale (if you have time), or donate it to a local food bank.

Shortage Options

With a CSA you can keep a list of who gets Sun Gold tomatoes each week, until everyone has had some. This method has the advantage of keeping the time spent picking cherry tomatoes down to a reasonable level. The sharers get some as a treat a few times in the summer, but not every week.

You can mix leaves of several greens in an attractive bunch and call it braising mix, or add unusual crops to bagged salad mix, or make up stir-fry or ratatouille packages. If a crop is really poor, it is often best to till it in and plant something else. For me, this eases the soul and lets me move on. We keep a running list of crops looking for a home, so we can replace failures with fast-growing crops such as radishes, arugula, mizuna, Tokyo bekana, or salad mix. One year when our fall cabbage didn’t fill the area intended, we used senposai, a tasty, fast-growing leaf green. If rutabagas don’t come up, sow turnips – there are very fast-growing turnips, and a small turnip is a delicacy, but a small rutabaga is a sad thing.

Hakurei turnips harvested late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

It helps to have a clear and simple rotation. Our raised bed plan is ad-hoc. We make use of the flexibility: one August we were a bit late getting some tilling done, and we sowed the last cucumbers in the bed which was to have been squash. Cucumbers take a bit longer than squash to reach maturity, and I wanted to get them in the ground as soon as possible. The squash had to wait two more days. Two days can make a lot of difference when planting for fall.

Finding Resilient Crop Varieties

We always read the information about disease resistance when choosing varieties, because mid-Atlantic humidity is so conducive to fungal diseases. Depending on your climate you might pay more attention to the cold-tolerance, or the number of days to maturity. Every year we trial small quantities of one or two new varieties of important crops alongside our workhorses.

Fruit for the Month: November – Persimmons

Our San Pedro Asian persimmon November 1
Photo Pam Dawling

This is part of my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate or similar. We are entering the dormant period for most fruits, meaning fewer to harvest, none to plant, but still plenty to prune and care for, and new plantings to plan for next year. I give links to some useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.

Persimmons are the focus fruit for November

Hachiya Asian persimmon
Photo Stark Bros Nursery

The Harvest to Table website has a lot of good information. The GrowVeg Guide   has a handy quick checklist. Stark Brothers Nursery has a series of 9 very short articles on growing persimmons.

Reasons to grow persimmons

Young persimmon trees produce fruit only a few years after planting, maybe the very year after you plant them. The trees are easy-care, with few pests (maybe aphids) or diseases, and can be grown as espaliers or cordons or in a large container. Persimmons tolerate a wide range of soil types, as long as the drainage is OK. Asian persimmons have leaves that turn yellow or bright orange in fall. The leaves of American persimmons are yellow in the fall. The ripe fruits on the bare branches of either type make an attractive fall display.

Persimmon harvest

Fuyu Asian persimmon.
Photo Willis Orchards

Late fall and early winter is the harvest season, and you can lay tarps or old carpets under you trees to catch the falling fruit. Or you can clip ripe fruits with pruners, including a short piece of stem. Exercise patience, although you can after-ripen the fruit off the tree if needed. Expect 1-2 bushels (15-40 lbs/7-18kg) from a mature 10-year-old Asian persimmon tree and 2-3 (30-60 lbs/14-27kg) from a mature American persimmon.

Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki) are generally sweeter and less astringent than the native American varieties, and the fruits are larger, up to small peach size. They are ripe when they are fully colored, slightly firm, slightly soft.

American persimmon
Photo Willis Orchards

American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are the ones that grow wild in the Eastern half of the US. They are notorious for making your mouth pucker up. This is, if you eat them before they’re very soft and ripe. This can be anywhere between September and February. They may have wrinkled, they may have had a frost. Despite rural myth, they do not need a frost to ripen, although a frost can help. If you wait for the fruit to fall, it will be ripe. Or wait for the fruit to become soft and the skin translucent before you pick them. Some astringent varieties have fruit that will hang on the tree into the winter.

Under-ripe fruit can be ripened after harvest in paper bags, perhaps with a banana peel or some other ripe fruit.

Ripe fruit can be eaten out-of-hand, or dried or frozen. The fruits store a couple of months in the fridge if necessary. They can be mashed to include in puddings, ice cream, pies, smoothies and baked goods such as cookies, cakes or bread.

Propagation of persimmons

While eating persimmons, you can save the seeds. Stratify them (a chilling method that encourages seed germination) by storing them in the fridge for two months. After planting, it will take up to six years before your seedling trees will bear fruit. There are two hybrid persimmons, Russian Beauty and Nikita’s Gift. Don’t grow from seeds of these as they will not grow true to type.

The other method of propagation is to take cuttings. You can graft Asian persimmons on to native persimmon root stock at bud emergence.

Choosing persimmon varieties

Choose varieties suited to your location. Asian persimmons need mild winters. Fuyu grows in zones 7-11, tolerating temperatures down to 0°F (-18°C). Other Asian varieties can tolerate 10°F (-12°C) and will grow in zones 8-10. The hybrid Asian/American Russiyanka and most American persimmons, on the other hand, can tolerate temperatures as low as -25°F (-32°C) and will grow in zones 5-9.

Let the winter-hardiness zone decide what type to grow. In Zones 9-10 grow non-astringent Asian persimmons; in Zones 7-8, astringent Asian persimmons may be better suited for colder winter temperatures and milder summer temperatures. In zone 6 and colder, grow American persimmons or the hardy hybrids.

Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro Asian persimmon, a shorter tree.
Photo Stark Bros

Most American persimmons require both male and female trees to get a good fruit set. Most Asian persimmons are self-fertile, but yield more and bigger fruit when several compatible trees are grown together.

Consult your Extension Service and local plant nurseries for which kinds do best in your area. Prices can vary widely, and quality may vary too. The Harvest to Table site has variety descriptions of 3 American persimmons and 8 Asian types.

Siting persimmons

Asian persimmons do best in full sun, while American persimmons can grow in partial shade, on forest edges. Choose a site with enough sunlight for the final height of the trees. Asian persimmons grow to be 25-30 ft (7.6-9m) tall and almost as wide. American persimmon trees grow taller – 30-40 ft (9-12m).

Plant the trees about 20ft (6m) apart in all directions, in late winter or early spring. Dig holes deep enough for the long taproots. Stake the tree for the first couple of years, then de-stake.

A bowl of ripe persimmons.
Photo Pam Dawling

Care of persimmon trees

Do not over-fertilize with nitrogen, or the fruit may drop early. In backyards, plant them in the lawn (if you have one) and the grass growth and mowing will provide enough nutrients.

Prune in winter when the tree is dormant, being aware that persimmons fruit on last year’s wood. (Don’t cut everything back the same year.) train young trees to an open center (goblet style) or to a central leader. Tape or burlap the trunks of young trees to prevent sunscald injury.

Other small fruits still available in November

 

Quince fruits
Photo Emilian Robert Vicol from Com. Balanesti, Romania
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Quinces look like large fuzzy yellow apples, growing on large shrubs. They are ripe when the fruit have a good smell and develop a split from top to bottom. They are usually cooked, rarely eaten raw. The easiest way I know to cook them is to bake them whole, until the flesh is soft. This does take a while. They make delicious jelly.

 Wintergreen is another native, frequently overlooked. The tiny berries often persist through the winter (I guess they’re not too popular with wildlife. . .)

Jujube (Chinese dates, red dates) ripen mid to late fall.

Other fruit care in November in the mid-Atlantic

Weed and fertilize rhubarb, blueberries, summer-fruiting raspberries, spread cardboard and sawdust mulch. Weed grapes, take any cuttings wanted. Cover unions of grafted grapes until the spring to protect from cold damage. Plant new blueberries if needed. Weed strawberries and top up the sawdust paths. In colder areas, you may cover strawberries with hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Weight down the edges with sticks, rocks or sandbags.

Hoophouse Winter Schedule Tweaks and Improvements

I’m always on the lookout for ways to pack more crops in, get higher yields, reduce or at least spread the workload. All while nurturing healthy soil and organic food that people enjoy.

Tweaking the Salt Wash-Down Dates

Using a lawn sprinkler to wash down the salt build up in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about Preparing your Hoophouse for Fall and Winter on September 28. I belatedly realized that in my hurry to publish the post I let some out-of-date info slip in. We don’t do our fall salt wash-down in November any more – we prefer early October, while it is still warm enough for the plants to be improved by extra water, rather than drowned and miserable. We have switched from two days in the spring to three, as we think two days wasn’t quite enough water to get all the salt back deep in the soil profile. We had ambitions of doing three days in the fall as well, but I can tell you now, from experience, that we can fit in two days but no more.

I’ve described how we broadfork and rake all the beds in the fall, and the amount I can do in one day (along with all the other tasks) is 1/3 of a 96ft x 4ft (29m x1.2m) bed. That human limitation, and the logistics of crop rotation and planting dates, leaves a small window between preparing the first three beds to get planted (9/6-10/6), and the remaining four (10/10-10/24). It really doesn’t work well to broadfork and rake saturated soil! It’s better to have a few days for the water to soak in. So, we are satisfied with two days of salt wash-down in fall, for the time being.

Catch Crops

Mid-October photo of September-sown tatsoi and August-sown Tokyo bekana. Fast-growing crops make good use of small windows of time.
Photo Pam Dawling

Last fall I noticed that some areas of some of our beds were idle between being prepped and planting dates in November and December.  I hate to waste prime real estate like hoophouse bed space, So this year when we planned our bed layout, we herded all the little late sowings into one bed with the intention of finding some fast-growing crops to put in that space first. We also managed a more rational layout in each bed, planting the various crops in chronological order from the east end to the west.

Next, I researched what we might grow ahead of the main crop. There are some unknowns here. We have numbers of days to maturity for crops in ideal conditions (nice warm spring temperatures), but we are heading into colder temperatures and shorter days. So it might not work out as we hope. However, given our fondness for salad mixes, anything we have to pull up immature will still be eaten and enjoyed!

Salad Mix freshly harvested.
Photo Pam Dawling

The bed in question was all ready to plant on September 30. The areas I could see for catch crops included 11/9 “filler” spinach and filler lettuce, 11/15 tatsoi #2, 12/7 lettuce mix #2, 12/18 mustard salad mix, and 12/20 radish #5.

I decided to put the 16ft (5m) of areas for November 9-15 sowings (39-45 days to go) into 45day Tokyo bekana and the 18ft (5.5m) of areas for sowings after December 7 (79 days available at that point) into 60day Cylindra beets. The Tokyo bekana came up very quickly, and I expect it will be destined for salad greens, which will be very useful as our outdoor lettuce is waning and we’ve just had a patchy frost (early for here) – the colder weather will slow crops down.

Young Cylindra beets.
Photo Wren VIle

The beets have still not come up 9 days later, and the soil is 60F (15.5C). I’ll check again tomorrow. 10 days should be long enough with soil at that temperature. My niggling worry is that the salt wash-down has drowned the seeds. See Root Crops in August. If they are not up at 10 days, I think I will hoe the area and resow with something quicker – perhaps tatsoi (45 days). I was disregarding tatsoi because it will bolt in January. Umm, but this is a catch crop, that we’ll need to pull up in early December – January isn’t even on its calendar!

Carrots out! Cress in!

Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Last winter we grew a small patch of carrots because one of the crew really wanted to try them in the hoophouse. I wasn’t a fan because carrots are so slow-growing and provide only one harvest (usually). But I am a fan of democracy and participation, so we grew carrots. We could have harvested them sooner than we did and planted something else (in my opinion), but there they sat all winter.

Oh yes, about that “usually”: you can eat carrot tops and I have used finely chopped carrot leaves as a garnish. A major brand of crackers has carrot tops as one the herbs in their Herb Crackers. Read the small print!

This fall, as we planned our crops, I said I’d prefer not to grow carrots again, but I was out-voted, and hence we sowed carrots. Now those crew members have left, and I gave the evil eye to the carrots. I’d just read an interesting article about nutrient-dense vegetables, and learned that The 5 Most Nutrient-Dense Vegetables Based on Science are watercress, Chinese (Napa) cabbage, Swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach. We’re growing all the others, but no watercress. For the next-best thing, I wanted to try land cress/Upland Cress in our winter hoophouse.  So I hoed off the little carrots and sowed Creasy Greens Upland Cress and Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure. They take 50 days to maturity (in spring) and I note:

“The yellow blossoms help nourish ladybugs, syrphids, and other beneficial insects”

So I plan to let some flower in spring for the beneficial insects.

Creasy Greens Upland Cress from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Flowers for beneficial insects

September-sown shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Last year, one of our trials was a collection of annual flowers to attract more pollinators into the hoophouse. None of the ones we tried seemed to do much, except for one shingiku (chrysanthemum greens) which is still flowering! Readers suggested I’d do better to just let some winter brassicas flower instead of growing special flowers. So upland cress might become part of our solution for that! We’re also growing a perennial, yarrow, to attract beneficials.

Shungiku chrysanthemum greens.
Photo Small House Farm

The other hoophouse tweaks on my list are more for spring and summer, so I’ll leave those for another post.

Fruit for the Month: October (fall raspberries)

 

Caroline fall raspberries.
Photo Nourse Farms

This is part of my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a  mid-Atlantic climate or similar. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.

Fall Raspberries are the focus fruit for October

Fall-fruiting raspberries have the advantage that you won’t need to worry about spring frosts killing the blossoms, so this is a good crop for colder spots in your garden. We used a frost pocket we called the “Arctic Circle”.  Avoid areas that have recently grown tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or other nightshades, or strawberries or raspberries, because of the risk of soil-borne diseases.

To get an abundant fall harvest, you can have an easy life, pruning all the canes to the ground in winter or early spring. I used to do this by removing the ropes holding the canes into their corral and then mowing the canes down (very quick work!). I left the pairs of T-posts in place and mowed between them.

After raking out and composting the canes, I could get in and weed thoroughly before the canes started growing. As they grow, thin them out to a two inches (5cm) apart. Over-crowded canes will not grow strong or produce good harvests. Once they reach 3 ft (1m) tall, add ropes to the T-posts, making a corral.

I recommend Caroline red fall raspberries. They are large and flavorful, very productive, and tolerant to yellow rust and root rot. The golden ones, Anne, also sound good, but more people like traditional red raspberries, so we went with those. We planted beds 9 ft (3m) apart, with our purchased plants 28” (about 70cm) apart. (They soon filled out the space). You can grow a perennial clover crop in the aisles, or if you have perennial weeds to conquer, an annual winter rye cover crop, followed by a summer cover crop. Hopefully you will have got rid of perennial weeds before planting raspberries!

Drip irrigation works well for raspberries. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Because raspberries don’t do well if it’s hot and dry, pay attention to watering. Drip irrigation works well for raspberries, because once it’s in place for the season, very little work is needed to ensure your plants get enough water. Plus, water is not landing on the leaves, where it could encourage fungal diseases.

Nourse farms supply an online Planting Guide. They say “If you read it, they will grow”. I recommend it. Also see Harvest to Table for concise, experienced information on this and many other crops.

Josephine fall raspberries.
Photo ATTRA

Calendar of fall raspberry care

Starting now, for those who have fall raspberry varieties, and proceeding through the winter into next year.

September, October: Weed shallowly. Harvest and enjoy. Water well.

November, December, January: Cut all canes to the ground after the leaves drop. Weed, compost and mulch the beds. (We have used the tops from our November–harvest storage carrots.) Dig up rogue canes from the aisles, maintaining a 12-15” (30-35cm) bed width. Order new plants if needed.

February, March: Prepare future new beds. Plant new canes with compost (not artificial fertilizer, which is too fast-acting), keeping the roots damp as you work. Make the planting holes big enough to allow the roots to spread out. Set the canes an inch (2.5cm) lower in the soil than they were in the nursery or pots. Firm the soil thoroughly around the roots, by stepping on it. Roots will die if they are in air pockets. Water in well. Spread organic mulch around the planted canes to keep the soil damp and deter weeds. Set 5 ft (1.5m) T-posts in pairs across the bed, every 20-25 ft (6-7.5m). Water 2” (5cm) per week as needed. There may be no visible new growth for 4-6 weeks. Existing beds: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles.

April: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles. Set up ropes at heights of 3ft (1m) and 5ft (1.5m). Thin fall raspberry canes to 2” (5cm) apart.

May, June, July, August: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles

Raspberry varieties labelled as “fall-fruiting” are capable of providing two crops each year: a summer crop and then a smaller fall crop. To achieve this, you need to prune them the same way you prune summer-fruiting-only varieties, leaving the newer canes that have not yet fruited, removing only the old fruited canes in late winter or very early spring.

Other small fruits still available in October

Rhubarb can be harvested lightly in September and October.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Watermelons, Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), blackberries, kiwi berries (Actinidia arguta, aka hardy kiwi, Chinese kiwi), muskmelons, muscadine grapes, rhubarb (light harvest). In some areas, Asian Persimmons, elderberries, Figs, and pawpaws may still be available.

Annual fruits such as Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in early July!

Other small fruits becoming available in October

American persimmons are the ones that grow wild in the Eastern half of the US. They are notorious for making your mouth pucker up. This is, if you eat them before they’re soft and ripe. This can be anywhere between September and February. They may be wrinkled, they may have had a frost. Despite rural myth, they do not need a frost to ripen.

American persimmon..
Photo gardening Know-how

Wintergreen is another native, frequently overlooked. The tiny berries often persist through the winter (I guess they’re not too popular with wildlife. . .)

Himalayan Chocolate Berry has small berries that ripen sporadically in early fall.

Jujube (Chinese dates, red dates) ripen mid to late fall.

Other fruit care in October

Mow aisles for one more time, weed and water all fruit Start fertilizing and mulching blueberries, grapes, raspberries, rhubarb. Weed blueberries and raspberries shallowly, so as not to damage roots.

Renovate strawberries if not already finished: weed, remove surplus runners; Compost if not done in August.

Preparing your hoophouse for fall and winter

December lettuce and spinach in our hoophouse. Photo Wren Vile

Recently I traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas to give my presentation Extend Your Growing Season into Colder Weather with High Tunnels. Run the mouse over the slide and click on the lower left.

CAFF - Extend Your Growing Season into Colder Weather with High Tunnels

We are getting ready for fall and starting to plant our winter crops in the hoophouse.

I have written about transition to winter crops here: Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables (August 16, 2022). This post includes a bed plan, and links to lots of related posts, such as selecting and planning winter crops, bed prep, direct sowing and transplanting, and then caring for the crops, optimizing use of the space, harvesting, and what to do if something goes wrong,

Fall Lettuce Transition

From September 11-17 we sow to transplant in our greenhouse, and on September 15 and 24 to transplant in our hoophouse. This is our fall transition and I’ll write about that when the time comes.

On September 15 and 24, we sow leaf lettuces and romaines in an outdoor nursery bed. We transplant these into our hoophouse at 10” (25 cm) spacing. This is a bit closer than the 12” (30 cm) spacing we use outdoors. We will harvest outer leaves from the hoophouse lettuce all winter, so the plants won’t get as big as they do outdoors.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Wren Vile

On October 23 we start sowing lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall, longer in colder weather. Our first sowing will be harvestable form 4 December to 15 May if we’re lucky, although if it gets too hot, this planting will get bitter and we’ll need to pull it up.

Baby lettuce mix is a direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. We sow 10 rows in a 4’ (1.2m) bed, 4.5” (11cm) apart. Weed and thin to 1″ (2.5 cm). When 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cut 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut with using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds. Rake after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it. Larger scale operations have harvesting machines.

We make four or five sowings of baby lettuce mix, sowing our last one on 15 February, for harvest starting mid-March, and ending in May when it gets too hot. By then we should be happily harvesting juicy lettuce heads outdoors and will have lost interest in the lettuce mix.

The soil temperature range for germination of lettuce seeds is 35-85°F (2-29°C), with 40-80°F (4-27°C) being the optimum range and 75°F (24°C) the ideal. At 41°F (5°C) lettuce takes 15 days to germinate; at 50°F (10°C) it takes 7 days; at 59°F (15°C) 4 days; at 68°F (20°C) only 2.5 days; at 77°F (25°C) 2.2 days. Then time to germination increases: 2.6 days at 86°F (30°C); after that it’s too hot.

Removing Shadecloth from our Hoophouse

We are now removing our shadecloth. Normally we would have removed the shade cloth in mid-September, or at least by the Equinox, but this year we are delayed a week. After 15 years with our initial piece of shadecloth we ordered a new piece. Well, we ordered two new pieces, because we mistakenly ordered a piece only half long enough. We bought a matching piece for the other half, and this winter we are going to sew the two pieces together with nylon twine, because the ends of each piece roll back, leaving a central gap about 6 feet long by September. Measure twice, order once!

Our hoophouse with two pieces of shadecloth (by mistake). Photo Pam Dawling

Before next spring we need to replace quite a lot of the hooks the shadecloth ropes attach to. Next time we replace the big plastic we also need to replace the baseboards, as they are rotting and not holding the hooks well.

My post Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal includes spreading compost, broadforking, and a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep.

Also see September in the Hoophouse for more about removing shadecloth

A reader passed on this tip:When I ordered shadecloth for my hoophouse, I overshot each end by ten or twelve feet. We stake that out on either end, using six-foot T-posts, to give us a shaded area where air moving into the hoophouse’s open ends can be cooled before entering the structure. Every year in July and August, I’m grateful we did.”

Washing Down the Salts in the Hoophouse

Effects of excess soil salt levels on crop foliage.
Photo Rose Ogutu, Horticulture Specialist, Delaware State University

Next week we will leach the salts that have risen to the surface of the soil and dried out there. My book The Year-Round Hoophouse has a whole chapter on recognizing, monitoring and reducing salts that have built-up in the hoophouse, and reducing the likelihood of problems in the future. There is also a chart of salt tolerance of various vegetables, so you can choose what to grow while you remediate your soil. Here I’ll just give a very short intro, in three slides. Click in the lower left of the first slide to move to the next one.

Salt Build-up

Closing Hoophouse Doors and Windows at Night

We are starting to close the doors at night when the temperature looks likely to drop below 50°F (10°C) outside. We had to trim down the grass to be able to push the doors to. We had to re-drill the holes the door-bolts (“cane bolts”) go down into. The doors have been wide open all summer.

View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

In fall/winter/spring, if night time outdoor low temperatures will be below 40°F (4.5°C) here, we close the windows as well as the doors.

See my post Hoophouse Sliding Doors if you might want to replace your doors with sliding ones.

One of the sliding doors on our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Be Ready for Winter

See my post Dealing with winter weather in your hoophouse (Jan 2022). Be ready to deal with snow and strong winds, extra cold temperatures, and holes in the plastic letting cold air in. If you have a double layer hoophouse, the air inflated between the layers adds strength to the structure, as well as thermal insulation. Holes are bad news.

Hoophouse snow scraping tool on a telescoping painter’s pole. Photo Pam Dawling

Winter Kit

  • SnoBrum and telescoping painter’s pole
  • Hat with visor
  • Long-handled broom with bristles covered with a towel or some bubblewrap
  • Rowcover or inner tunnels
  • Some spare plants, back-up plans or a list of fast-growing crops to replace disasters with successes.
  • PolyPatch tape for fixing holes in the plastic
  • Gorilla tape for fixing many problems
  • Pond noodles or other draft-excluding sausages if your doors let air under them
  • Perhaps some sturdy poles or 2x4s to help support the roof in case of very heavy snow.
  • Hot chocolate/tea/coffee for when you get back indoors.
Plan D: seed flats in our hoophouse on Oct 16, a late attempt to make up for things that went wrong!
Photo Pam Dawling

Nematode-resistant food crops and cover crops

Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills, two Juncea mustards that resist nematodes. Photo Pam Dawling

A few weeks ago I wrote about clearing tomato plants, and mentioned our hoophouse troubles with nematodes. Nematodes are tiny soil-dwelling worms that have a wide host range and are hard to control. They move only 3’–4′ (1–1.2 m) per year on their own, but people move them on shoes, tools, etc. We have had peanut root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne arenaria) since 2011 when we found them in spinach transplants we were growing for outdoors in early spring.

My article on nematodes in Growing for Market  in November 2014 describes our discovery of the beasties and our first attempts to deal with them.

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In my August 2014 post Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse I wrote about solarization to fight nematodes in our hoophouse (scroll down to the end of the post). The post includes a photo of our first attempt at solarizing – a  bit of a How Not To! Be sure to use UV-inhibited polyethylene. This year we somehow got some construction plastic mixed in. It doesn’t work! It goes cloudy (thus not heating up the soil) and it shatters into little pieces.

There is info on dealing with nematodes from Garry Ross in Hawaii, where nematodes are a fact of daily life, in my post Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes from February 2015.

My most thorough blogpost about nematodes was in 2018 for Mother Earth News:  Managing Nematodes in the Hoophouse.

Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

My post Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes in August 2019 includes a photo of a much better way to solarize an individual bed. In that post I gave a list of nematode-resistant food crops, and also talked about cover crops. There is a photo of nematodes on cucumber roots there too).

Food crop choices to fight nematodes

Most resistant and most helpful are the Juncea group of mustards. I did some research into more Juncea options in Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes. We don’t like very pungent greens, so we have not yet taken the route of planting a whole bed of Juncea types. Instead we have mapped and flagged the nematode-infested areas of our beds, and try to be mindful of what we plant in those spots. Three of our seven beds have no nematodes so far.

Open-pollinated Yukina Savoy.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

This year we looked at the nematode map we had made and decided to focus our attention on the bed with the highest number of nematode patches, and grow the most resistant winter crops (of the ones we like to grow) there. That’s the frilly mustards (Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills, all Juncea mustards, and Mizuna, a Japonica mustard), Yukina Savoy (variously reported to be Brassica juncea,  Brassica rapa pekinensis, and Brassica rapa), and Russian kales (Brassica rapa).

Mapping nematode areas

See the post with info from Gerry Ross I mentioned above. We have previously tried for a “Two years good, One year bad” strategy. This was to grow nematode-resistant crops in the infected areas for two years, then try risking one year of susceptible crops. That was a bit demanding on careful management, and we haven’t kept that up.

Nematode map 2022

Cover crop choices to fight nematodes

French marigolds and sesame to deter Root Knot nematodes in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

A reader asked about cover crop choices to fight nematodes. In June 2019 I wrote about using marigolds, sesame, Iron and Clay cowpeas as warm-weather nematode resistant cover crops. We’ve also used winter wheat (in winter!), and white lupins (not worthwhile, in my experience). See that post for a few other ideas on nematode-fighting cover crops, and why we decided against some options. At that time, we decided not to grow sunnhemp (Crotolaria) because it is poisonous, although newer varieties of Crotolaria have lower toxin levels. More recently we have been growing sunnhemp, after I saw it growing so well in North Carolina. It is a warm-weather legume, so it is feeding the soil while tackling the nematodes. It does grow tall in the hoophouse, and we have taken to chopping it down with hedge shears to an ergonomic elbow-height every few weeks whenever it gets too tall. The cut tops create a nice “forest-floor” mulch effect. You can almost feel the extra organic matter nurturing the soil! (High OM levels deter nematodes.) 60-90 days to maturity.

Sunnhemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC.
Photo Pam Dawling

We previously used soybeans as a short-term leguminous summer cover crop, but they do not offer the nematode resistance. Iron and Clay, Mississippi Silver and Carolina Crowder cowpeas are all nematode-resistant and can be grown in summer instead of soybeans. Sesame is a legume that is particularly good against peanut root-knot nematodes.

Iron and Clay southern peas flowering in September. Photo Pam Dawling

See Our Organic Integrated Pest Management post for an organized approach to pest management, including nematodes.

A Florida reader gave me information about partridge peas, which I have not yet tried: After terminating cool-season brassicas and celery between April and June, their late spring sowing of partridge peas were too late this year to be productive, because the hard seed was very slow to germinate. Partridge pea could be a good cover crop for mid- to late-summer, if you scarify those hard seeds to speed germination.

Some cover crops can be alternate hosts for pathogens like cercospora, rust, or bacterial leaf spot, so be on the lookout for new problems while solving old problems. In the deep south, beans, yard-long (asparagus) beans, and cowpeas can succumb to heat, nematodes, rust, bacterial spots, and other pathogens and pests. Senna (tall) and Partridge pea can provide “chop-and-drop” organic matter as sunnhemp does. Sunn Hemp can host foliar pathogens (some possibly seed-borne), in Florida, and does not reliably form nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots, even when inoculated. Even so, it is useful as a fast warm season green manure cover.

The flower Gaillardia (blanket flower) is a quick-to-compost, chop and drop option for late winter to late spring, It decomposes quickly, and can provide a quick green manure. Gaillardia is nematode-resistant, great for beneficials and pollinators, but is susceptible to some foliar pathogens later in the season. You can sow Gaillardia in August, or even later in fall for early spring flowering.

Due to climate change, and the more year-round activity of nematodes, pathogens, and pests in Florida, they’ve been including more nematode-resistant grasses into their rotations. We all need to be thinking more about warmer-climate options, as climate change continues to push pathogens and pests farther north, earlier each year.

Fruit for the Month: September (Watermelon)

 

Crimson Sweet watermelon.
Photo Nina Gentle

This is another in my monthly series of posts about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a (loosely-speaking) mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.

Watermelons are the focus fruit for September

Nothing beats a big slice of watermelon during a break from working in the fields. It’s a good cure for dehydration, especially if lightly salted to balance the electrolytes, and helps improve heat tolerance. It’s good to know watermelon are nutritious, but frankly, their main claim to fame is that they are delicious, and just about everyone wants one when the weather is hot.

Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I’ll start with information on harvesting, and pests and diseases to watch out for, then cycle round to things to think about for next summer’s watermelon crop.

Watermelon harvest

Ripe watermelons have mature seeds. In Crimson Sweet these are brown-black. White seeds indicate an under-ripe melon.
Photo Pam Dawling

The skill of the harvester in discerning ripeness is a major factor affecting the taste. The first sign we look for is the shriveling and browning of the tendril on the vine directly opposite the little stem of the watermelon. If this tendril is not shriveled we walk on by. Next we slap or knock on them.

According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, when a watermelon is ripe, it will have a hollow sound when you thump it with your knuckles: it sounds like thumping your chest. If it sounds like knocking your head, it’s not ripe; if it sounds like hitting your belly, it’s over-ripe. There is a 10-14-day period of peak ripeness for each variety. We harvest our Crimson Sweet from around 7/25 (75 days from transplanting) to the end of August. We might be still harvesting in September.

Lastly, we do the “Scrunch Test”: put two hands (heels together) spread out across the melon, press down quite hard, listen and feel for a scrunch – the flesh in the melon is separating under the pressure. Rumor has it that it only works once, so pay attention!

Other growers with other varieties use different ripeness signs, such as the change in color of the “ground spot” (the area touching the ground), or the change in rind texture from glossy to dull.

I like to cut the melon stems with pruners, but some people break them off. Watermelons need gentle handling, as do the vines if you will be returning to harvest again. After harvest, we set the melons out to the side of the row for pickup. This gives time for sap to start to ooze out of the cut stem. If the sap is red or orange, the melon is ripe. If it is straw-colored, the melon was cut too soon. This is useful feedback for new crew.

Post-Harvest Storage of Watermelons

Watermelon marked with a grease pencil.
Photo Nina Gentle

Watermelons can store for a few weeks, but then flavor deteriorates. We store ours outdoors in the shade of a building or a tree. Rotating the stored stock is a good idea. (Consider dating them with a grease pencil/china marker). The ideal storage temperature is 50-60°F (10-15.5°C), with 90% humidity.

Watermelon Pests

Compared to some crops, watermelons are not often challenged by many pests.

  • Striped cucumber beetles are our worst pest. They eat not only the leaves (which reduces the sweetness of the melons) but also the rind of the melons, leaving an unattractive russeted surface, thinner than it was originally, and easily damaged. Cucumber beetles can also interfere with fruit set by eating the stamens and pistils of the flowers. Don’t worry unless you see two beetles or more per plant.
  • Aphids (usually green peach aphids) can be a problem to young plants – another reason to use rowcover or fine mesh netting. If needed, use insecticidal soap, or import ladybugs or lacewings.
  • Spider mites can be a problem in hot dry weather if populations are driven into the patch by mowing of bordering grassy areas. Heavy rain, vigorous spraying with water or overhead irrigation will reduce numbers.
  • Root knot nematodes can attack roots and produce galls. This leads to loss of vigor and wilting.
Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower. Photo Pam Dawling

Watermelon Diseases

Organic growers do not usually get many disease problems with watermelon, provided the soil fertility is well-balanced and the plants are not physically damaged. There are a few diseases to watch for:

  • Alternaria leaf spot
  • Cercospora leaf spot
  • Gummy stem blight
  • Watermelon fruit blotch/bacterial fruit blotch is a serious seed-borne disease
  • Bacterial wilt – watermelon is resistant, although young seedlings could succumb.
  • Fusarium wilt is a persistent soil-borne fungal disease that infects the roots, invading the xylem cells.
  • Anthracnose is a fungal foliar disease that can cause loss of vigor and fruit spotting.

Check the Oklahoma State University Watermelon Diseases publication for help identifying diseases.

Planning Watermelon Varieties for Next Year

 After trying several varieties, we settled on Crimson Sweet, a 20-25 lb (9-11 kg) striped 10 x 12” (25 x 30 cm) oval OP melon which takes 86 days from transplant to harvest. It has tolerance to some strains of Anthracnose and Fusarium. Its flavor is the best! For many years, I saved the seed, selecting for size, earliness, disease resistance and flavor. This is available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, as Crimson Sweet, Virginia Select.

Crimson Sweet, Virginia Select watermelon seed collection.
Photo Pam Dawling

Charleston Gray is another popular large variety, with a redder color but less sweetness than Crimson Sweet. Black Tail Mountain (OP, 73 days) was made famous by Glenn Drowns, who developed it as a fast-growing, highly productive, rich flavored melon he could grow in a cold climate in northern Idaho. It stores for up to 2 months after harvest. OrangeGlo (85 days) is an outstanding orange-fleshed variety, with large fruits and great tropical flavor.

“Icebox” varieties are 6” (15 cm) round, 8-12.5 lbs (3.6-5.7 kg) melons, perfect for small refrigerators. Some varieties are ready as soon as 64 days after transplanting. Seedless triploid varieties Dark Belle (F1 75d) and Fun Belle are said to be better tasting than traditional Sugar Baby (77d) and orange New Orchid (80d). But triploid seedless watermelon seed is expensive and harder to germinate, and the transplants are very fragile and tricky to establish. Triploid varieties are hybridized from a cross between two plants with incompatible sets of chromosomes. This results in sterility (lack of seeds).

Even smaller than the icebox size are “mini” watermelons, 3-6 lb (1.4-2.7 kg). Golden Midget is an OP seeded mini from Baker Creek 70d, 3 lbs (1.4 kg). There are also triploid seedless varieties. Solitaire (triploid, 88d), is a single serving watermelon from Johnny’s. It has 6” (15 cm) diameter fruit. Harvest can begin 78 days after transplanting.

I’ll do a blogpost on growing watermelons next spring, once you might be sowing the seed, or at least planning your garden layout.

Other small fruits still available in September

Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), Asian Persimmons, Blackberries, Figs, Muscadine Grapes, Muskmelons, Pawpaws, Fall raspberries, Rhubarb.

Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in June!

Other small fruits becoming available in September

Kiwiberries (Actinidia arguta, aka hardy kiwi, Chinese kiwi) and elderberries. American persimmons need to be soft before they’re nice to eat. This can be anywhere between September and February. If the wildlife are not going to wait for them to ripen, harvest them early and let them ripen indoors.

Sun Jewel Asian melon. Photo Mary Kranz

Other fruit care in September

Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit (weed blueberries and raspberries shallowly, so as not to damage roots).

Prepare and plant new strawberry beds in early September if not done in late August, using potted runners. If needed, use rooted runners from the paths of an old patch to fill gaps. Renovate strawberries to carry over for next season, if not already done.

Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables

 

Hoophouse winter greens.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

If you have a hoophouse, you may now be planning or planting crops for fall, winter and spring. If you don’t have a hoophouse, this is a good time of year to consider getting one. See Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse at the end of that post. There are grants available from NRCS, including reparation levels of funding from traditionally underserved groups of people. There are now companies that will construct your hoophouse for you, if you don’t want to do it yourself, or can’t. If you do want to build your own, there are detailed instructions in my book The Year-Round Hoophouse. You can buy the book here on my Books page direct from me, or from my publisher New Society, or you can buy it wherever books are sold.

The Year-Round Hoophouse cover

I have many posts about winter hoophouse vegetables, so rather than try to write something completely new on the topic, I am going to give you a guide to find your way around the information already here.

General Hoophouse Info

Winter hoophouse growing

Hoophouse video interview

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables slide show

Hoophouse Cool Season Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Many Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Crop Planning

Planning winter hoophouse crops

Hoophouse Crop Rotations

Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, planning

Hoophouse Greens Clearance, Warm Weather Crops Established

Hoophouse Crops Winter 2022-2023

Hoophouse Bed Prep

Hoophouse fall bed prep

Fall hoophouse bed prep

Hoophouse bed broadforked to loosen up slumped soil. I’m happy to say our soil structure has improved in the 18 years since this photo was taken!
Photo Pam Dawling

Choosing Hoophouse Winter Crops

(see also my post categories on the right side of the computer screen, for special posts on Asian Greens, Cooking greens, lettuce and root crops)

How to decide which vegetable crops to grow

Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021

Spinach variety trial conclusions

September in the hoophouse: sowing spinach

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow onions in a hoophouse

Frilly Mustards in our Winter Hoophouse

Three cheers for Ruby Streaks!

Yukina Savoy in the Hoophouse

Cooking Greens in December

Cooking Greens in February

Cooking Greens in March

Yukina Savoy in the early morning mist.
Photo Wren Vile

Asian Greens in October: Yukina Savoy, Tatsoi

Asian Greens for December: Pak Choy

Asian Greens for January: Chinese Cabbage

 

Green Panisse and red Revolution lettuce in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate

Year Round Lettuce

Lettuce growing in October

Lettuce in December

Lettuce varieties for January

Early Lettuce Production

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest

Tango lettuce from our September 24 sowing on January 10.
Photo Pam Dawling

Planting in the Hoophouse (Both Transplanting and Direct Sowing)

The decision between transplanting and direct sowing

Sowing hoophouse winter crops

Seedling winter crops

Starting Seedlings

Bare Root Transplants

September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

Keeping Every Hoophouse Bed Fully Planted and Productive

Using all the space in the winter hoophouse

Fast Growing Vegetables

Sequential Planting slideshow

Young Tokyo bekana transplant in our hoophouse .
Photo Pam Dawling

Caring for Hoophouse Crops

What makes vegetable crops bolt and how can I stop it?

You don’t want this! Bolting lettuce outdoors in July
Photo Alexis Yamashita

What to Do If Something Goes Wrong with Your Hoophouse Crops

Back-up plans for winter hoophouse crops

Plans A-D

Emergency back-up seedlings for the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Harvesting in the Winter Hoophouse

Winter hoophouse harvests

Mid-winter hoophouse harvests

This winter week in the hoophouse

Young greens in the hoophouse

Winter Harvests

Making baby salad mix

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Clearing Tomato Plants

These tomato plants have served us well, and their time is up. We have pulled them out of the ground and left them suspended in the twine to wilt, before hauling them to the compost pile. The bed behind the tomatoes is being solarized to kill fungal lettuce diseases. Photo Pam Dawling

Here in Virginia, we pull up our two beds of tomatoes in the hoophouse at the very end of July or early in August. I realize this will horrify people in colder climates. I’ve been there. Every tomato plant was to be cherished until the frost took it. But in hot, humid Virginia, we have harvested from these plants for nine weeks, and the outdoor plants are coming in strongly. We don’t need the hoophouse ones; they’ve grown taller than we can reach, and we’ve lopped the tops off with hedge shears several times. Fungal diseases are to be reckoned with, and we only manage a two-year rotation in each bed, as far as nightshades go. In the past, we grew “high summer” food crops or seed crops, and needed to get the tomatoes out to make way for the new crops. Nowadays we only grow cover crops in the summer, until it’s time to prepare the beds for fall planting.

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

We use the Florida String Weaving method of supporting our tomatoes. One thing I like about this method is that it is easy to take down, and all you have to store for next year are the stakes, which take less space than cages, or individual T-posts. We have a descriptive list of steps, and also a Worksheet – see below.

Another feature of our life with our hoophouse tomatoes are the Peanut Root-Knot Nematodes. When we pull our tomatoes, we examine the roots and carefully remove the ones with nematode lumps in them, usually to the parking lot on a dry sunny day, to die in the heat and be run over by cars. We don’t even want to send them to the landfill, because we don’t want to do anything that increases the number of nematodes anywhere. Nematodes need a film of water to survive, and the parking lot deprives them of that.

Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles). We forgot to take photos of the tomato roots.
Photo Pam Dawling

We spread the tomato clearance job out over a week, doing one step each day, so we don’t have to be in the hoophouse after 11 am, when the temperature becomes unbearable. After harvesting all the fruit (ripe and unripe, separately) in the first bed, we pull up the plants and check the roots. If we see nematode lumps, we carefully cut off the roots and take them outside. We mark the area with a blue flag in each corner, and later measure the distance from the end of the bed and mark the problem area on a map of the beds. This is in case the flags mysteriously fall out.

When we plan the winter crops, we plant the more nematode-resistant crops in the infested areas.With the non-nematode infected plants (most of them) we shake the soil off the roots to speed up the wilting. Plus of course, we don’t want to be removing precious topsoil from the hoophouse! We leave all the plants still hanging in place in the rows of twine, to dry out for a couple of days. We are going to haul them to the compost pile, and it’s a lot less work (fewer cartloads) once the plants have wilted.

Cutting down through the layers of twine in preparation for clearing string-woven tomatoes. Photo Pam Dawling

The second day, we collect up the plant labels and put them in either the “Successes” bucket or the “Failures” bucket according to whether we want to grow that variety again. We cut the twine, pull out the long pieces and collect them in a trash bucket. We don’t try to save the twine, partly because it would take a lot of time, and partly because we don’t want to use twine that might be infected with fungal diseases. The easy way to remove the twine is simply to cut downwards beside a stake, through each of the pieces of twine, then go to the next stake and do the same, but this time gather the twine in the non-knife hand. Next, slice down the other side of the same stake, to reduce struggle, and make the lengths of twine easy to pull out! We use sisal twine, so we let the small pieces, which were wrapped around the stakes, drop to the ground. Most of them will get collected up when we pull the stakes, and a few will go with the plants to the compost pile.

Gathering the lengths of twine after cutting at both sides of each tomato stake. Photo Pam Dawling
Tomato clearance, after cutting and pulling the twine, and removing the stake extenders in the near bed. The bed to the right still has the extenders in place. Photo Pam Dawling

The third day we pull up the stakes. To reach the full height we needed, we have tied an extension stake onto each one, so first we remove those, then we pull the stakes that are in the ground. We like to use a T-post puller for this job, as it gets the wood posts out nicely without breaking them off in the ground. We only use the wood stakes for hoophouse tomatoes once, and the next year we use them outdoors, often for the snap peas. This is to reduce spread of diseases. When we pull out the metal T-posts we scrape the soil off, then spray them down and scrub with a brush.

Our (welding-repaired) T-post puller makes fast effective work of removing wood stakes too. 15 seconds per stake.
Photo Pam Dawling
When I’m collecting things togethe, I throw them into clusters as I work, and make them ready to move easily. Photo Pam Dawling

The fourth day we haul the wilted plants to the compost pile. We make a little effort to keep the zipper spiders in the hoophouse, but they have minds of their own! We do gather up any egg cases we see, and hang those on the metal framework of the hoophouse, to provide spiders next year.

A large zipper spider in our hoophouse in early August. Photo Pam Dawling
Zipper spider egg cases overwintering in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

On day 5 we rake and (if in time) sow a summer cover crop. We like to use soy as a warm weather legume that will supply some nitrogen, but it needs 6 weeks to be worthwhile. If we are a bit late, we’ll just sow buckwheat. We need our first bed for fall and winter crops on September 6. The others won’t be needed until Early October or later.

The steps for the second bed happen one day later than they happen in the first one. See the worksheet to get the full story.

Hoophouse Tomato Clearing Worksheet

If you live in a cooler climate than I do and you want to learn about keeping tomato plants growing (and accessible) in a hoophouse, read Andrew Mefferd’s book The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook. There he explains the lower and lean method of supporting tomato vines.

And I’ll close out with this photo which shows a tomato stem that I accidentally broke when doing the first round of stringweaving. I bandaged it back together with electrical tape from our drip tape first aid box. In the past I have also repaired stems with band aids. It works really well and the plants recover to live a normal productive life.

Yes, this really works! Tomato stem repaired with electrical tape 5 months earlier.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fruit for the Month: August (Grapes)

 

Concord grapes ripening. Photo Kati Falger

This is another post in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a vaguely mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.

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Grapes are the focus fruit for August

The Cornell  2022 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Grapes 2022-org-grapes-NYSIPM.pdf   (3.291Mb) is a great resource. It covers soil health, pre-planting and under-vine cover crops, site selection, variety selection, nutrient requirements, integrated pest management, and more in its 90 pages. Be aware that it is written with the Northeast in mind.

For a more general approach, see Grapes: Organic Production. ATTRA, Rex Dufour, 2006.

If you are planning to grow grapes, late summer is a good time to prepare the site and sow a cover crop to suppress weeds, increase the organic matter in the soil, and if you include legumes, provide some slow-release nitrogen for the new vines.

grape trellises and solar panels in the mist. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Types of grapes

Grapes are a long-term perennial crop, so good research into suitable types and varieties is important. Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) and table grapes do not grow well organically on the east coast, because of fungal diseases. Mars is a table grape that grows relatively well organically. It resembles Concord. Vitis Labrusca grapes (Concord, Niagara, etc) are much less susceptible than Vinifera varieties. Hybrid Grapes (Labrusca x Vinifera), such as Arandell, Cayuga White, Corot Noir, Noiret, and Traminette have better potential for Organic culture than Vinifera types.

We grow Labrusca grapes, mainly Concord, with a few Allred, with a selection of other varieties that we are trialing, including the Planets (Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, Venus) and Edelweiss, Fredonia, Marquis, Niagara, Reliance, Sheridan, Steuben, Vanessa. All these are suitable for juice, jam and jelly. Fredonia, Marquis, Mars, Niagara, Reliance, Steuben, Vanessa and Venus are dessert quality, but mostly they have thick skins, big seeds, and a sour taste. Some of these varieties are susceptible to Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and/or Black Rot, and I wouldn’t buy those again. Likewise, I would not buy grafted vines, such as the Cynthiana and Niagara, as we are not good at remembering to cover and uncover the graft unions when the seasons change.

Muscadines

Muscadine grapes. Creator: David Nance, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org. Copyright: licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

In the South, Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) will grow easily, although Vinifera and Labrusca grapes won’t. See Mark Hoffman, Patrick Conner et al, Muscadine Grape Production Guide for the Southeast.  Also see the chapter on muscadines in Blake Cothron, The Berry Grower.  (My review coming soon) This less publicized grape type deserve more attention, especially in hot, humid areas.

The aromatic, sweet, large round muscadine grapes are resistant to diseases and pests (perhaps thanks partly to their thick skins), have 4-10 grapes per bunch, mature in 90-120 days, and separating from the vine with a dry scar when ripe.

 

 

 

 

The muscadine industry is a multimillion-dollar industry in the US, but most people don’t know it. Muscadines are probably the first cultivated native grape in the US. There are at least 100 cultivars of muscadines, including Scuppernong, the one people are most likely to have heard of. Some varieties are more suited to wine-making, others for fresh eating. Some are seedless. Individual plants are either male or female, with a few self-fertile cultivars. Planting a ratio of 3 female to 1 self-fertile vine will ensure pollination. Those in areas experiencing winter temperatures below 10F (zone 7b and colder) should choose a relatively cold-hardy variety. Make a trellis before planting time, allowing 16’ (5m) between vines:

Munson grapes

Thomas Munson in Texas “. . . became one of the leading experts in native American grape species, and his studies were instrumental in saving the European grape and wine industry from disaster during the late nineteenth century.” Free Munson grape cuttings are available from Grayson College, Texas for growers and breeders (request in the fall). These grapes are easier to grow organically under a wider range of conditions

Site Selection

As with many fruit trees, good air drainage is important. This means an open site where cold air can flow away downslope, and not cause a frost pocket. A site that has some protection from cold winds is valuable. Grapes benefit from soil that absorbs rainfall and lets it drain away when excessive. If your soil is compacted, do some deep cultivation before planting grapes. If necessary install drainage. This important site selection and preparation takes time, so start now! Get a soil test in the fall, and perhaps sow cover crops – see the Cornell publication for ideas.

A row of grapes in early spring. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Preparations for planting

Turn under or smother any cover crops in the rows. Build a strong trellis with cross arms and wires to fit your chosen trellising method. We use the Geneva Double Curtain, a cordon method. It has a single lower wire, fastened to the posts, and a higher wire on each side, fastened to the ends of the arms. If the first vine is trained over the lower wire and onto the east upper wire, say, the next vine will be trained over the lower wire and up to the west upper wire. By alternating, each vine can be planted 10 ft (3m) from its neighbors, but have room on the top wires for cordons (arms) of 10 ft (3m) in each direction, until they meet each other.

Install orchard grade drip irrigation (tubing with integral emitters). The tubing can hang on clips on the low wire of the trellis. This prevents accidental mowing or rodent damage.

Orchard tubing drip irrigation, showing an emitter and the clips holding tubing to wire. Photo Pam Dawling

Be ready by the early spring shipping date. Ours was 24 March.

Planting grapes

Dig 16” (40 cm) deep holes for new vines. Put 4” (10cm) loose topsoil in each hole (no compost). When the vines arrive, unpack them and soak the roots in water for 3-24 hours. For own-rooted plants, pruning roots to 6” (15cm) is possible but not needed. Grafted vines need planting with the graft union 2-3” (5-8cm) above the soil surface, the union temporarily covered with soil until the plant starts to grow.

New grape vine. photo Bridget Aleshire

Spread the roots into loose soil. Cover to 4” (10cm) below grade.  Position own-rooted vines at the same depth as it was in the nursery. Tread firmly. Fill the last 4” (10cm) with loose soil (don’t tread). Install label and stake (bamboo). Tie the vine to the stake. (Stakes will be removed after 2 years.) Mulch with cardboard and sawdust. You could prune now to 8-10 buds above the crown spur, and prune more later, or leave for now. Label the vines, make a map and logbook to note flowering and fruiting times, and success of new vines.

Annual Grape Calendar

Immature grapes. Photo Bridget Aleshire

January/ February

Compost and re-mulch the vines. Check and repair the drip irrigation. Update maps and logs.

Could take dormant wood cuttings, 6-9” (15-23cm) long, cut at the top 1” (2.5cm) above bud at a slope, heel in, label clearly.

March

Plant any new vines. Prune existing vines. See notes made the previous year, about replacement arms, etc. Be sure to prune vines well back from young vines, as competition is hard on them. Vines pruned after the buds swell will leaf out a little later, and may avoid late frosts. Tie in well to top wire. Remove any wrong side growth.

A row of new vines without a trellis yet. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Weed the rows, particularly around new vines. Remove stakes from any vines planted two years ago. Mow the aisles. Water if in drought, 1” (2.5cm) per week.

Layer branches of existing vines to fill gaps (very effective gap-filling method). Lay a tip with several buds 2-5” (5-12cm) deep in a trench, cover with 3” (7.5cm) of soil. When new growth starts to appear, fill the trench and pack firmly. Separate the plants the following fall. Layering can also be done in the fall.

 April

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases. Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.

New Vines: One week after bloom, remove all fruitlet clusters in the first two years after planting. After hard frosts are past, or once growth starts, prune the new vines to a single stem with 2 or 3 buds above the crown spur. Or if the vine is vigorous, leave two trunks, one for insurance. Remove any suckers growing from the base of the vine.

Mature vines: One week after bloom, thin clusters to one per bud, if the number of clusters exceeds 60 on a mature vine (24 for a 4-year-old, 12 for 3-year-old).

Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.

Irrigation with orchard tubing clipped to the lower wire. Photo Pam Dawling

May-July

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases.

New vines: Rub off or prune away all side branches growing on main trunks below chosen cordons, and remove any fruit clusters that appear. Tie in new growth.

Once a month – Remove dead wood. Train to wires. Tie in. Take notes. Keep aisles mowed.

August

Harvest – early August some years, or late August if the first buds got frosted. New vines will not yield for two years, and full bearing capacity will not be reached until 5th or 6th year. The productive life of a vine is 20-30 years.

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.

Two rows of grapes viewed from the north. Photo Kathryn Simmons

September

Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.

October-December

Weed. Water if needed. Last mowing early October. Cover the graft unions of any grafted vines with soil.

Pests and diseases of grapes

Monitor for Black Rot, Botrytis, Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew, Phomopsis, Anthracnose, and other fungal diseases. Be on the lookout for grape Berry Moth, leafhoppers, scale insects, spider mites and Japanese beetles. Don’t panic about a few Japanese beetles. Grapes (and many other crops) can take a certain amount of defoliation before suffering a loss of yield.

For full technical details, see the Cornell publication mentioned above.

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Other small fruits available in August

Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), blackberries, crabapples, fall raspberries, muskmelons, peaches, and plums are still available. Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in May or June!

https://harvesttotable.com/how-to-plant-grow-prune-and-harvest-blackberries/

Very weedy primocane (fall-fruiting) Caroline raspberries in need of attention. Photo Kathryn Simmons

If you live in Virginia, see https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/producechart.pdf

Small fruits that may be starting to ripen include elderberries (mid-Aug to mid-Sept), pawpaws, schisandra (2-3 weeks from the middle of the summer) and watermelons.

I have reviewed two books about pawpaws on this site: Pawpaws, by Blake Cothron, and For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd

Other fruit care in August

Water all fruit crops. Pack away blueberry netting after fruiting. Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit (weed blueberries and raspberries shallowly, so as not to damage roots).

In early August, plant new strawberry plugs at 4 weeks old, or rooted potted runners. Start more plugs if needed.

Newly planted strawberry plugs in landscape fabric.
Photo Wren Vile