Sweet potato harvest – all in!

Our sweet potato harvest well underway.
Photo credit Wren Vile

           

Usually sweet potatoes are harvested the week the first frost typically occurs. In anticipation of frosts (that didn’t happen) on Sunday and Monday nights, we harvested this week. Contrary to myth, there is no toxin that moves from frozen leaves down into the roots. On the other hand, cold injury can ruin the crop, and roots without leaf cover are exposed to cold air temperatures, and have lost their method of pulling water up out of the soil. Cold wet soil can quickly rot sweet potatoes (I know, it’s happened here).

To harvest, we first remove the vines from the area to be harvested that day. There is usually 3 afternoons’ digging for ours, and we want to leave live vines to protect the rest of the crop overnight. We use pruners to snip the vines where they emerge from the soil, leaving stumps to show where to dig. We roll the vines into the spaces between the rows.           Using digging forks, we carefully dig up the roots, which grow in the ground in a bunch-of-bananas shape. We want to select good potatoes for seed, and we grow several different kinds (Georgia Jet, Beauregard, and a couple of heritage varieties whose names we don’t know), so we make sure not to mix potatoes from different rows. As we dig, we set the potatoes out beside the spot where they’ve grown, one clump per plant, so it’s easy to identify the most productive plants.

It’s important not to bruise the roots, or to leave them exposed to temperatures higher than 90°F (32°C) for more than half an hour, or they will get sun-scald. Below 55°F (13°C), they’ll get chilling injury. We also avoid any abrasion of the skin, which is very fragile at this stage. We leave the sweet potatoes to dry on the ground for 1-2 hours, unless the weather is unsuitable. This year we had ideal weather, not too hot, not too cold; breezy enough to dry the skins, sunny.

We want to grow our own slips (baby plants) next year, so we save at least 1 root per 5 slips wanted.  (1 good slip every 16″.) So to plant 800 row feet, (600 slips), we save 100 each of our two main varieties and 20 each of the two heirlooms. That should be plenty. Some will shrivel or rot, so we allow a margin. We don’t save for seed any roots that look diseased. We choose plants with a high yield and no string (rat-tail) roots. From these plants, we choose small-medium sized potatoes with typical shape and color.

When grading and crating the roots in the field, we first choose the seed potatoes, and then sort storable from “Use First” roots. Large open broken surfaces will cure and can be stored, but any roots with soft wet damaged areas or deep holes (whether from voles, bugs or fork tines) will not store, and should be graded out, for composting or immediate use. We sort into 4″ deep wood flats or 5″ plastic crates for curing, and buckets for the “Use First” category.

Immediately after harvest, we took the boxes of sweet potatoes into a warm damp basement below the dining hall, to cure. This allows the skin to thicken, cuts to heal over and some of the starches to convert to sugars. Uncured “green” sweet potatoes are not very sweet at all, and are better used in dishes where they combine with other foods. A baked uncured sweet potato is a sad disappointment.

We stack our boxes of roots on pallets, and put wooden spacer sticks between boxes in each stack, to ensure air flow. We get quite good temperatures, but keeping humidity up is difficult for us. We cover the flats with newspaper to hold in some moisture. The best result seems to come from splashing water on the concrete floor several times each day. We use box fans to improve the airflow, and the basement already has some natural ventilation.

Ideal conditions for curing are 85-90°F (29-32°C), and 80-95% humidity for 4-7 days, with some airflow and ventilation. Curing takes longer if conditions are less then perfect. The length of the curing period also varies with the dryness of the soil just prior to harvest. We usually reckon on 10-14 days. During that time, we’ll be taking turns to stoke the stove in the basement to keep the temperature up.

So – how did we do this year? Middle of the road, I’d say. Decent yields, but not a bumper crop – we still had empty boxes left over. The deer were regularly eating our vines until quite recently. Last year we had a dog to chase the deer off, but he met with a road accident. His replacement was old, and she just wanted to be a pet, so we had deer again. We used drip irrigation and biodegradable plastic mulch this year, and did a good job of weeding, so I put the lower yields down to deer damage.

Last year’s (weedier!) sweet potato field.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Now the harvest is complete, we will disk the area and sow cover crops. It’s too late in the year for oats. We can sow wheat, winter rye and Austrian winter peas up till 10/31. We prefer winter wheat after the sweet potatoes,  because we’ll use that area next year for spring white potatoes in mid-March, and rye takes too long to break down early in the spring.

Hoophouse covered! Frost expected Sunday and Monday nights!


Photo credit Luke Stovall

Well, after two weeks exposed to the elements,  our hoophouse finally got its renovations finished, and we put the new plastic on this morning. I haven’t yet got the photos to prove it, but take my word for it, the stress is over! Two people are out there right now, finishing inserting the wiggle-wire in the channels round the edges, and trimming off the spare plastic. We’d all forgotten how hot it gets in there with plastic on! Suddenly no-one wanted to go inside.

This morning’s work went smoothly till we got to the second layer of plastic. Last night was cool and dewy, and the grass wet. As we pulled the second layer of plastic up and over the hoophouse, it got a film of dew on the underside – bad planning! The top layer than stuck to the bottom layer and was really hard to pull over. We turned on the blower to try to push some air between the layers, and we also wafted it ourselves. Eventually we were successful, but we did make a few holes in the edge of the plastic in the meantime.

Those who’ve never put plastic on a hoophouse might wonder how it’s done. Here’s our method: we tied ropes (thank you Twin Oaks Hammocks) around tennis balls pushed up in the edge of the plastic, like little Halloween ghosts. We used five along the 100′ length of plastic. Then we put more tennis balls inside colorful odd socks (thank you Twin Oaks Community Clothes) and tied the other end of each rope to one of these. Someone then threw the balls-in-socks over the top of the hoophouse to the far side. Hilarity at how many of us never learned to throw well! The first layer slid on quite easily, and we “tacked” it into position every ten feet or so with a piece of wiggle-wire. Then we repeated the ball-in-sock throwing exercise with the outer layer. That’s when it got difficult. And our bag of chocolate chips had to be moved to the shade because they were starting to melt!

After we got both layers of plastic in position, we pulled out the slack and fastened the wiggle-wires fully in the channels. The shiny new plastic looks beautiful in a techno-sparkly kind of way. And it promises to help us grow tons of delicious food for the winter. Thank goodness it’s done.The weather forecast suggests we’ll have frost on Sunday and Monday nights. We’ve got ginger and cowpeas growing in there – we don’t want them frosted.

Ginger growing in our hoophouse.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

The Asian greens, spinach and radishes can take it, but not the warm weather crops.

We’ll still have some odds and ends to finish up: one of the windows needs a repair to the frame, and the bubblefoil stuff along the north wall needs tacking back into place. All in all, though, a happy conclusion to this project.

It’s time to put rowcover over the late beans to extend the season beyond the first frosts. Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Outdoors, we are bringing out rowcovers to cover late plantings of squash, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce. It’s goodbye to the eggplant, okra, sweet corn, tomatoes. It’s time to harvest the sweet potatoes and peanuts. Maybe it’s goodbye to galinsoga and other tender weeds. Maybe goodbye to harlequin bugs. The brown marmorated stink bugs are starting to seek shelter for the winter, in our sweatshirts hanging on the shed door.

Goodbye eggplant!
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Goodbye to all that. And hello to sweet potatoes, boiled peanuts (a seasonal tradition here), kale, spinach and leeks.

Hello kale!
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Fresh air hoophouse, seedling winter crops

Well, it’s the weekend, and I said I’d let you know how it’s gone with our hoophouse renovations. the answer is – we haven’t got the plastic on yet, check in again next weekend! We have got the west wall braced with diagonal tubing. We have got the old blower replaced with a new one.

For the geeks, here’s the air intake for our hoophouse blower.
Photo credit: Kathryn Simmons

We have got screws in some of the connectors holding the purlins and bows together. We have got all the south-side baseboard off and the rotten bit from the north side. We have got new baseboards (Eastern Red Cedar) cut to length. Unfortunately they ended up a bit thicker than the old ones, not sure why, so the bolts we bought are too short. More hasty shopping! We have got all the old duct tape off the bolt heads and metal connectors and replaced it with shiny new duct tape. It’s to protect the plastic sheeting when we pull it over. We’re planning a little crew party for when it’s done.

Brite Lites chard in our hoophouse.
Photo credit Pam Dawling

Meanwhile we are harvesting our seed crops of Mississippi Silver cowpeas and Envy edamame from in there, and we are prepping beds for the winter crops. We have sown seedlings in one of the outdoor raised beds, to plant out in the hoophouse starting in a few days. Our first round of sowings, on 9/15, included some Brite Lites chard and ten varieties of lettuce, 75cm of each.

Our winter hoophouse lettuce has challenges with a disease we call Solstice Slime (as it arrives around the winter solstice), although it’s generally called Sclerotinia Drop. The best slime resistant ones for us are  Merlot, Oscarde, Tango, Winter Marvel, Hyper Red Wave. Next best: Outredgeous, Winter Wonderland, Salade de Russie, Red Salad Bowl, North Pole. Less good: Roman Emperor, Rouge d’Hiver, Devil’s Tongue, Salad Bowl.

We also sowed some Asian greens, enough to transplant 50-60 each of Pak Choy, Blues Chinese Cabbage, Yukina Savoy and Tokyo Bekana.

Tokyo Bekana
Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

On 9/23 we sowed a short row of Pumba onions in the hoophouse as an experimant – they are a more southern variety. Our hope is to get some earlier onions this way. We tried this last year, but many of them bolted, so I’m starting later this time around.

Mizuna
Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Our second outdoor sowing for the hoophouse was 9/24 and we sowed more lettuce:  Hyper Red Wave, Merlot, Red Salad Bowl, Outredgeous, Revolution, Salad Bowl, Tango, Winter Wonderland.  Our notes sternly say “Not Oscarde” for this sowing, although it does fine from the first sowing. Details! We are trying Panisse and Red Tinged Winter this year.

Red Russian Kale
Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

We also sowed Red Russian Kale (132 plants) White Russian Kale (117plants) Kale Galega de Folhas Lisas (15 plants) Senposai (140 plants) Yukina Savoy #2 (50 plants) and Mizuna #1 (40 plants). We are growing some green mizuna and some purple, also some Ruby Streaks, which is like mizuna but more mustardy.

Grasshoppers and hoophouses

This week I did some research into grasshoppers, as we have have been losing lots of new seedlings (kale, spinach, beets and turnips), and the beds are leaping with little jumping critters. Definitely bigger than flea beetles, I think they are baby grasshoppers. usually we get them in mid-August, not the first part of September, but climate change is here, so things are not “as usual” any more.

I learned that we had inadvertently been providing ideal grasshopper habitat by two things we have been doing. Or rather, two things we have not been doing. Grasshoppers like tall unmowed grass, and yes, we have been very slack about mowing around the edges of the gardens this year.Next I read that if you want to keep grasshoppers away from your vegetables you could sow a small patch of grains nearby, but not too close. The light-bulb lit up! We use a lot of buckwheat and soy as summer cover crops in our raised beds and for one reason and another, some of them got over-mature and the buckwheat set seed. No doubt the grasshoppers were having a feeding frenzy there! We paid in other ways too – the self-sown buckwheat has come up in our fall crops, and been a challenge to remove before it swamps the crops. Next year, more timely mowing and tilling. (We have a mantra not to repeat the same mistake two years running.)

I read up about Nosema Locustae bait. It’s a parasite of grasshoppers that you can spray in the spring when there is a growing population of young grasshoppers. Some of them eat the bait and incubate the parasite, then other grasshoppers eat those ones, and the disease spreads. It’s an organic answer, and doesn’t give an instant result. Some people say it’s the following year after applying it, that you’ll see a diminished horde. Sounds worthwhile, to me.

ImageMeanwhile, our main task this week has been replacing the plastic and doing major renovations to our 30′ x 96′ hoophouse (high tunnel). We scheduled this last week, but got too much rain and wind. It’s time to replace the plastic, and we also need to replace the baseboards and shore up the west wall, which has been leaning in for some time. The two layers of plastic came off fairly easily, but it’s been tough going since. All the screws and bolts are rusted up, of course.

In order to stabilize the framework, we decided to put a screw in each connector where the purlins join the bows. That’s 25 x 6! And to prop the west wall up, we got some steel tubing to make diagonal braces. Dim-wittedly, I bought connectors that only work on two pieces of tubing at right angles to each other, not on a diagonal. So I had to do some hasty shopping. We had hoped to finish before rain and before Tuesday, but I think we’ll be there longer than that. Every little thing that doesn’t go according to plan sets us back a bit more. I’ll tell you how it’s gone next weekend.

It’ll be a joy when it’s all done and cozy in there for the winter, and we have lots of salads and cooking greens. Can’t wait!

Image

A busy fall week

Senposai, a delicious leafy green that grows fast and is fairly cold-hardy

This week has gone by in a flash. The weather has been conveniently dry, so we have been able to make progress on some of the weedy crops. We’ve uncovered turnips, senposai, kale, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy, winter radishes, and a whole new sowing of beans that already have big fat beans on them! I noticed them a few days ago, but we ran out of time on Tuesday and didn’t harvest them.

The nights have been so chilly (one was 45F!) , and the mornings so dewy that it has been impossible to get everything harvested before lunch. So many of the crops at this time of year are best not touched while the leaves are wet, to minimize the spread of fungal diseases. Our crew only works in the mornings in summer, although some of us still have garden work during the rest of the day too. Today was our last morning shift, and tomorrow we start afternoon shifts, until next May. Not everyone relishes gardening in the afternoons, but it makes the most sense in terms of harvesting and also transplanting.

This year’s fall kale doesn’t look as good as this yet.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

We had to resow all of our beets and some of our kale – I think they were eaten by baby grasshoppers or crickets. Possible because our lack of timely mowing around the edges of the plots this summer led to tall grass which is good habitat for grasshoppers. or possibly we over-watered in our effort not to under-water! The new kale is up and I’m keeping an eye on it in case it disappears. Some of our spinach seedlings have also disappeared, I fear. But there is still time to resow spinach. We reckon if we sow it before 9/20, we’ll get some to eat in late fall and during the winter. if we miss that date anmd sow 9/20-9/30, the plants will over-winter small, and we can start harvesting from them in the spring. Spinach makes some growth whenever the temperature rises above 40F in winter, and in our climate (and under the rowcover), it will get plenty of sunny days during the winter.

We started harvesting our broccoli last weekend – it’s over a week earlier than usual, this year. That’s good news, but it caught us hopping, because we are participating in the NOVIC variety trials, and need to record data each time we harvest. A comical event was that when I printed the rating sheet on our only color printer, it ran out of blue ink, and the broccoli colors came out in sunset shades! Luckily, I’d asked for some printed copies in the mail and those arrived later that day. Our color printer is in our Tofu office, and those who know our tofu know that blue features prominently in our tofu packaging and marketing – take a look at the webpage here. I guess that’s where the blue ink went!

Lots of Rain! Thinking About Strawberries . . .

We’ve managed to work in the garden most of the time we’d planned to this week, even though we’ve had a lot of rain. Since the start of September, in just 5 days, we’ve had 2.4″ and it looks like rain brewing now. Before that we had a week without rain, but before that a week with 2.1″. The soil is saturated, and hoeing anything would be a complete waste of time even if it was possible. We just have to watch the weeds grow in most places, while we focus on what we can do.

Great news on our big carrot weeding – we finished that this morning! I made a new Task List for the week and it mentions a lot of weeding, which sounds daunting. I remind myself that compared to the carrot weeding, most of the upcoming weeding tasks are small. One 90′ bed of squash plants doesn’t take long at all, and even a 90′ bed of turnips isn’t so much!

Tender Grey Zucchini from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I saw that our fifth sowing of squash has tiny squashes on it, so we’ll add that to our harvest list, along with the number 5 and number 4 plantings. That’s good news, because I want to “do in” the old #3 planting soon. It’s beside the watermelon, which is just about finished, and I’d like to pull the drip-tape out of there, and roll and store it for next year. Then as soon as the soil is dry enough to not get too compressed by the weight of the tractor, we can disk up that area and sow winter cover crops. Winter rye, Austrian winter peas, and crimson clover in this case, for next year’s mid-season sweet corn.

I just ordered two rolls of DeWitt Sunbelt landscaping fabric (weed barrier) for our new strawberry beds. We’re going to try burning holes in the fabric to plant through. The goal is to have more strawberries and fewer weeds. I’ve met and read about other growers who do this, and it seems to me to be our best hope. We can roll up the fabric and reuse it in a year or two, when those strawberry plants are worn out. Other members of the crew are less enthusiastic than me to try this, so we’ll see how it goes. If it doesn’t work well, I’ll be selling the landscape fabric in June 2014, so watch out for it! Really, though, I do expect it to work well and convince the others.

Planning ahead for strawberries

Here’s a link to Mark Cain of Dripping Springs garden in Huntsville, AR about Landscape Fabric in the Marker Garden. Erin Benzakein wrote a great article in Growing for Market in October 2011: Eliminate weeding with landscape fabrics. You’ll need to subscribe to read it. These two convinced me. There are a couple of photos on the Black Village Market Garden blog and a whole series on Mountain Harvest Organics, which is over twice our scale.

I’m on the point of ordering strawberry plants too. We’re getting plugs of Chandler strawberries from Cottles in North Carolina. (Call or email them for info on plants, mostly their website is about selling fruit and vegetables.) We bought from them in 2010 and the plants did very well. Plugs are the easiest way to grow new strawberries. They are little plants in plastic cell-flats. Shipping is rather expensive, naturally, because you are getting the potting soil too. But in this area, plugs planted now will be harvestable next year. In the past we used to buy bare root plants, which are just how they sound, and are only sold during the dormant season, for planting in early spring. Then you are not supposed to let them flower the first season, so you have to weed for a whole extra year before getting any fruit.

Wow! Weeds!

 When we have massive big harvests, it’s hard to get much else done on the garden shifts. This week we’ve made a lot of progress on the two big projects of the broccoli patch and the carrot thinning and weeding.

Crimson clover flowers in early May
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

The whole of the broccoli and cabbage patch except the very edges has been cleared of weeds. After tilling the edges, the next job there is to broadcast a mix of medium red clover, large white clover and crimson clover, and water it in until it germinates, if nature doesn’t deal with that. Hurricane Isaac is forecast to curve round towards Virginia by the middle of next week, but lots can change with weather systems. If all goes well, we’ll get the clovers established before we need to start walking in there harvesting (usually mid-September onwards).

This fall (as I reported in my post on July 5) we are taking part in the Novic broccoli variety trials, growing twelve different kinds of broccoli and eleven of cabbage. We have received our report sheets to write down our data and comments each time we harvest them. We’ll benefit from the comparisons and next year just grow the best varieties. We want varieties that provide a long broccoli season, and sideshoots are as important to us as main heads. Quantity and flavor are important to us as well, of course! We want cabbage to store for the winter, as well as cabbage that is ready quickly. We’re feeding the hundred members of Twin Oaks Community, and just about everyone here likes broccoli and cabbage. George Bush would be out of place!

The carrot thinning is making good progress. From the top of the 265′ rows, it looks like we are very, very close to the end. There is what I call a “curvature of the earth effect”: when you walk down there to weed, you see we’re not as close to the end as it seemed. But – the end is in sight! Next, we’ll hoe between the rows, then leave this crop alone until the baby carrots are salad size. Then we’ll weed and thin again, this time to 3″. And we’ll be able to eat those tender little carrots! Then we’ll leave them alone again until November, when we dig and bag them all.

Happy young zucchini plant
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

So, now we can look at other projects. We are removing rowcover from the crops we sowed at the beginning of August. Today we uncovered a bed of turnips, one of squash, one cucumbers and three kale. In the next few days we can weed and thin those. In fact I already thinned the big squash plants as I walked by on my way to the hoophouse after lunch. I just couldn’t resist! The plants, sown on August 5, are already two feet tall, pushing at the rowcover. I thinned to about 18″-2′ apart, and also pulled out a few handfuls of galinsoga, our most common summer weed in the raised bed area.

One of the signs we look for in deciding whether the season is cooling down enough to sow spinach is the re-emergence of the cool weather annual weeds, especially dead-nettle and henbit. I usually look for them while harvesting paste tomatoes, as that soil has not been disturbed for a while. I saw seedlings of one or other of these key weeds on 8/18 this year, a bit earlier than usual. We were certainly having cooler nights and even cooler days, so it all felt right.

This morning we prepped four beds for spinach. The beds had just been tilled yesterday afternoon with our walk-behind BCS 732, and today we shoveled paths and raked the tops. We’re due to sow 5 beds of spinach on Saturday (9/1), and I’ve already got the seed sprouting in a plastic jar in the fridge. It’s hard to get spinach to germinate in hot weather, so we always pre-sprout in the fall. Just soak the seed overnight, then drain and put the jar in the fridge. I go by once a day to roll the jar so all the seeds get a chance of light and moisture. It’s not much work while they’re sprouting. Hand-sowing is a bit more fussy. Sometimes the damp seeds clump together, so we mix them with a dry, non-sticky food item like dry grits, oatmeal or bran.

We mark five rows in each bed, and sow spinach in the outer four. in spring we sow snap peas in the middle row, and get double value from the bed, the weeding we do, and the winter rowcover.

Looking forward to Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Risking Zombie Carrots: weeding tiny carrots versus weeding broccoli

After the flurry at the beginning of August to get the last warm weather crops sown, we’re now focusing on cool weather crops to feed us in the winter.

We sowed 4000 ft of carrots (Danvers 126) on August 4th, flamed them to kill the weeds that came up before the carrots, then hoed between the rows last week. This week we’ve begun the slow job of hand weeding the rows and thinning the carrots to an inch apart. At 4000 ft of rows, that’s 48,000 carrot seedlings to keep and thousands more weeds to remove to ensure the carrots’ happiness! Fortunately, we get faster at this skill with practice. We’re using marker flags as we go down the rows, to show where to start next time. It’s fairly obvious while the plants are all so small, but the flags also serve to measure our daily progress.

After this thinning, we won’t come back till the carrots are big enough for salads, when we’ll thin to 3″ apart. Then we’ll do the big harvest, washing, sorting and bagging, in November. We hope for at least 30 fifty-pound bags to see us through the winter. Last year and the one before, we fell behind with the weeding and had to abandon part of the plot. As always, we resolved not to repeat the same mistake two years running!

A bed of nicely thinned carrots,
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

We’re certainly off to a good timely start this year. And as a result of learning from last year’s mistakes, we decided to try overwintering a bed of later carrots (we’ve just sowed those). Last year we took the desperate measure of mowing the part of the plot we couldn’t weed, to stop the weeds from seeding. To my surprise, the carrots grew back! They were promptly named the Zombie Carrots. They survived the winter and grew into edible size. Sure, they never got big, but the flavor was especially sweet, in the cold weather. Previously we avoided overwintering carrots because of problems with voles tunneling underground and eating roots of whatever they could find. This winter we’ll test which wins: carrots or voles.

Finding time to weed carrots wouldn’t be so hard if it was the only task on our list. Not so.  (If carrots lose out, the best we can hope for is Zombie Carrots!) We are also tackling (larger) weeds in the (larger) fall broccoli. Our plan is to remove the weeds, then broadcast a mix of medium red clover, large white clover and crimson clover. If all goes according to plan and the clover seed gets enough rain or overhead irrigation, it will grow slowly over the fall and winter, and then take off in the spring when the broccoli is dead. We’ll bush hog the dead broccoli in spring and leave the clover growing for the full year to replenish the soil, just mowing from time to time to control annual weeds. When it works, it’s great. But we have to get rid of the weeds soon, to give it a good chance of success.

In March, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

So this weeding competes for our attention with the carrot weeding. Happily, they are different types of work: patient detailed work or energetic, vigorous pulling or hoeing. Some weather conditions suggest one job over the other; some people prefer one type of work over the other. The broccoli weeding makes a good energetic start to the morning, when conditions are damp and chilly. The carrot weeding makes for a more mellow finish to the shift. And it all makes a change from harvesting 52 buckets of tomatoes!

52 Buckets of Tomatoes

A small fraction of our harvest

On Tuesday this week we picked fifty-two 5 gallon buckets of Roma paste tomatoes. We’ve been harvesting the four long rows every Friday and Tuesday, but last Friday had a rainy start and we didn’t harvest, so we knew there would be a lot more than usual on Tuesday. Our Food Processing crew makes these into sauce which we store for the winter, and because the crew only has access to the big-scale kitchen equipment necessary to tackle such loads on those two days, there was no point in harvesting before Tuesday.

Also, we knew from records we’d kept from previous years, that 8/9-15 is “Peak Week”, when the harvest is at its highest rate. Nothing else to do but rally lots of people and get picking! Although Twin Oaks Community has about a hundred people, they are not all sitting around waiting to be asked to help with task like this. Most people already have their work scheduled for the week. Still, we were lucky enough to get some extra help.

We started our shift with some energetic work, shoveling and raking to prepare some new beds for lettuce, spinach and turnips. Then we harvested some other crops, beans, squash, cucumbers, okra – the usual stuff for this time of year. We were waiting for the dew to dry off the tomato leaves, to reduce the spread of fungal diseases. (We’ve been appreciating relatively cool nights lately – nice sleeping weather, but dewy mornings.) Round about 9am we started in on the tomatoes, and thanks to a steady pace from the regulars and some extra drop-in helpers, we just got finished at noon.

One of the things I love about living communally is being able to show up at the dining hall at mealtimes and be fed! If I had to prepare my own meals, I wouldn’t eat as well, I’m sure. We lined up the carts of tomato buckets in the shade of some trees next to the dining hall and collapsed into chairs with plates of food. This was the official hand-off to the Food Processing crew. After lunch they washed, trimmed, chopped and cooked the tomatoes. We’d heeded their request to be sure not to use any cracked buckets this time, and I think we we re successful in finding 50 suitable buckets. They fill the buckets with water to wash the tomatoes, and buckets with holes in cause floods in the dining room or kitchen, wherever they are working.

A guest who helped us pick in the morning, worked on the processing shift too, and stayed to the exhausted end around 2.30 am. Not everyone stayed till the end, most people left after the chopping, but the crew manager, of course, was committed to being there. We got 112 half-gallon jars of sauce. Quite impressive. We’ll enjoy those next winter.

112 jars is about the same amount we lost last year in the big earthquake. We were pretty much at the epicenter of the August 23 quake, and among our troubles was a basement floor with 100 broken jars of tomato sauce.

Our Roma paste tomatoes are another of the crops I’ve been saving seed from, and selecting for resistance to Septoria leaf spot, and for earliness and yield. They are sold as Roma Virginia Select through Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Gone are the years when our Roma plants crashed to a mess of dead brown leaves by this point of the season. We still have some Septoria, but not a lot, and the plants carry on to produce more healthy leaves and good fruit.

Forty of the fifty-two buckets of tomatoes are visible here. The others are behind the impressive line-up of carts. Photo by Wren Vile

Peak Watermelon Day?

This morning we picked 99 watermelons. I hope this is the peak day of harvest! We’ve been harvesting on Monday and Thursday each week since 7/30 or maybe 7/26, I’ve already forgotten! Numbers have leapt up: 10, 34, 37, 99. We need 22 melons a day during hot weather, to keep 100 people happy. So for all of August, September and a few days of October, we need 700-800.

But today’s 99 is not our all-time record. In 2010 we picked 120 on 7/31. And in 2008 we picked 320 on 8/20. That was too many and too late in the year. I’ve only got records back to 2000.

2000 was a bad watermelon year. We used to transplant into hay mulch, for weed control. Of course, we knew hay would cool the soil, and watermelons love heat. But we just couldn’t deal with the weeds any other way. We hadn’t started using drip tape irrigation back then, so our overhead sprinklers watered all the weed seeds in the aisles between the rows too. We used a vast space, with 10′ between the rows. We didn’t get ripe melons till well into August. 2001 wasn’t much better.

In 2002 I did some research into plant spacing and found we didn’t need to give the plants (and weeds) so much space. So we cut the row spacing down to 5.5′ and planted twice as many melons. 5.5′ is just the right width for unrolling big round hay bales between the rows. We started harvesting 8/3. Much better! We got 60/week in the middle of August and 100/week by the end of August. Still peaking much later than sensible. Watermelon in October is like yesterday’s newspapers – there’s not much demand.

2003 had a wet spring, we planted into mud. The harvest peaked 9/16. In 2004 transplanting dragged out. Our new rowcover had a manufacturing defect and disintegrated like wet toilet paper all over the field. We got our money back but the plants were set back by the lack of cover when they needed it. We started saving our own seed that summer, selecting for early ripening and good flavor. Also presumably for spring cold-hardiness as they were from plants that didn’t die.

In 2005 I did more research into spacing, and we planted 2.5′ apart in our 5.5′ rows. It seemed wiser to plant closer and go for more plants and so more first melons (one on each plant), as it is early ones that we want. Keeping geriatric vines alive to produce a third melon or so seemed to be missing the whole point of eating watermelon in hot weather.

At this point in our history, we were still harvesting up until frost (average mid-October here). We were planting about 1260′. We started to track how many melons we had on hand and what rate we were consuming them, so we could decide when we had enough and stop picking.

In 2008 we had no hay mulch available. From this disaster came a wonderful thing: we discovered biodegradable plastic mulch. We have used two brands: Eco-One Oxo-Biodegradable mulch  (made in Canada) and Bio-telo (made in Italy). This product is made from non-GMO corn and it starts to disintegrate after a couple of months in the field. It’s very thin and easily torn if the soil underneath is not smooth. It’s perfect for vining crops, because it stops the weeds growing and doesn’t disintegrate much until after the vines cover the whole area. And the big plus is that the bio-mulch warms the soil, rather than cooling it. Biodegradable mulches are now available in smaller pieces for backyard growers, from Johnnys Selected Seeds and Purple Mountain Organics.

We planted 1800′,  more than usual because the area the rotation brought them to was a bowl shaped garden where crops sometimes drown in wet years. We started harvesting 7/31, and numbers rose rapidly.We didn’t get any floods.  By 8/20 we had harvested 1000. That was the year we decided not to wait for frost, but to disk the patch in early and get a good cover crops established for the winter.

2009 had a peak harvest of 174 on 8/15. I think we stopped at 835 total on 9/2. 2010 records show an early start with 2 harvested on 7/18. We stopped at 665 on 9/8. We tried to experiment with various row spacings and plant spacings, but once the vines all meshed together and the weather got hot, our enthusiasm for science waned! We were planting 1060′. August had an inhuman workload, and we decided to see what we could do to reduce August tasks for future years.

In 2011 we decided to plant less, as were short of workers. We planned on 1080′ but then cut back further, and only planted 900′. This year we only planted 800′, with plants 36″ apart, so a lot fewer plants than in the old days of 1800′ and 30″ spacing. The melons are huge this year – I bet we don’t eat 22 of these a day!

So, having looked at the numbers here in the relatively cool office, I deduce that we haven’t picked anything like enough yet, and need 5 more 99-harvest days before we think about quitting. Time to start using the truck rather than the garden carts, for hauling them away. We’ve found the hard way that even though we can get 20 or so melons in a garden cart, it damages the carts and wrecks the tires. So now we keep to a 16-watermelon limit and save the carts.