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.

Last Chance Sowings

This week we’ve been busy tilling and raking beds in preparation for some Last Chance sowings.

In our climate zone, with an average first frost date of October 14, the first half of August is the last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. It’s important to know the last date for planting each crop so that you have a reasonable chance of success. For this part we got help from the Virginia Tech Extension Service: Fall Vegetable Gardening. 

The first group of Last Chance sowings are the warm weather crops, such as green beans, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash.

Here’s the formula (for frost tender crops), for figuring the number of days to count back from the expected first frost date; add the number of days from seeding to harvest, the average length of the harvest period, 14 days to allow for the slowing rate of growth in the fall, and 14 days to allow for an early frost. For example, yellow squash takes maybe 50 days from sowing to harvest, and the plants are good here for 21 days, so the last date for sowing would be 50+21+14+14= 99 days before the first frost. For us that means 99 days before 10/14, so 7/7. But with rowcover to throw over the last planting when it gets cold, the growing doesn’t slow down, and the season is effectively 2 weeks longer, and we can ignore the 14 days for an early frost. So our last planting of squash is 8/5, a whole month later than if we didn’t use rowcover..

But August is way to soon to be thinking about frosty weather, except to ensure we have enough rowcover on hand when the time comes. Here, and in many parts of the country, a frost or two will often be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is the effort. It’s easy to get extra harvests for a month or two from mature plants you already have.

We sow our #6 planting of beans 8/3, 15 days after #5; cukes #5 (slicing), by 8/5 at the latest; and zucchini and summer squash #5 by 8/9.

The second group of Last Chance sowings are cool weather crops that grow here in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in the summer. Beets, carrots, chard, turnips and radishes all fall in this group. It can be hard to get some of these to germinate when the soil is still hot.

On 8/1 we sow beets dry or presoaked for 2-12 hours in a little water – not too much water or for too long, as they need to breather air, or could drown. We sow them 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp the soil, and keep the surface damp with daily watering for the 5 or 6 days they take to emerge. We have tried using shadecloth to help keep the soil moist, but it does cut down the airflow and our climate is humid and fungus-inducing. I like the Formanova/Cylindra/Forono beet. The shape is long (good for slicing), and the flavor is very sweet and the texture tender.

Very early in August, or sometimes in late July, we sow a large planting of fall carrots, enough to store and feed us all winter. Danvers 126 is our workhorse carrot. We use an EarthWay seeder, which is light, easy to use and to empty, and comes at a reasonable price. There are more expensive precision seeders that put the seed out more evenly, and so don’t require the amount of thinning that using the EarthWay does, but we’re happy with our choice. We use pre-emergent flame weeding to remove the first flush of weeds, making it easy to then hoe between the rows.

Carrots and beets are ideal crops for this technique. The goal is to flame the bed the day before the expected emergence of the crop. use a soil thermometer and a table of how many days the crop needs to germinate at various soil temperatures, to figure out which day to flame. For carrots it’s possible to sow a few “indicator beets” at one end of the bed, and as soon as you see the red loops of the beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case!) Beets are always a bit quicker than carrots to germinate. Tables of Days to Germination can be found in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook (Wiley, 2006), by Donald Maynard and George Hochmuth, and Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook. (Rodale, 1988)

We use a handheld flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. this person also acts as a “fire warden”. Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame. Walking along the aisle between the beds, and wafting the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed takes about 10 minutes for a 100′ (30 m) bed. Flame weeding alone can reduce the hand weeding to one hour/100′. Hand weeding can be reduced to 6 minutes/100′ by flaming after using stale beds which have been hoed 3 or 4 times.

Swiss Chard can also be sowed here in August, for a nice fall harvest. We sow ours in April and just keep it going all summer, fall and (if covered) winter too.

At the beginning of August we sow winter storing radishes, China Rose, Red Meat, Shindin Risoh Daikon and Shunkyo Semi-Long. We also sow Easter Egg small radishes. We can have trouble with flea beetles as well as harlequin bugs on our fall brassica sowings, as the pest numbers have built up over the summer. To avoid these troubles, we put rowcover over the beds until the plants are big enough to stand up for themselves against “pest bullying”.

We sow 6 beds of kale, two each every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. Often we’ll get patchy emergence and end up transplanting plants from one bed or one end of a bed to fill out the blank areas.

We sow our turnips 8/15 or up until 9/15 (our absolute latest). Rutabagas need longer than turnips, and we’ve given up growing them because late July weather is just too hot and dry. Brassicas will germinate just fine in hot temperatures – the challenge is keeping the soil moist.

Harvesting melons

Now is a rewarding time to harvest from the garden! This week we started harvesting our Crimson Sweet watermelons. At the beginning of July our Sun Jewel Asian melons started coming in, and somewhere in between then and now, our Kansas muskmelons (usually called cantaloupes).

Sun Jewel Asian melon

Sun Jewel Asian melons take only 68 days from transplanting to maturity. A good melon for people with short growing seasons, provided you can make a warm spot for them. They have crisp white flesh and are refreshingly sweet without over-doing it. The  long oval fruits average 7″ x 3 1/2″  and are pale yellow with shallow white sutures (“seams”). They ripen to a more buttery yellow and slip off the vine when ripe. Plants are resistant to downy and powdery mildews, and can be very productive. We buy seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For new growers: “full slip” means a gentle nudge with your thumb on the melon where it joins the stem will dislodge the fruit. “Half slip” is an earlier stage where you need to cut or break about half of the thickness of the stem. harvest your melons at half-slip if you are going away for the weekend, or you worry the groundhogs will get it if you don’t. But if you are harvesting to eat right away, harvest at full slip for best flavor and aroma.

Kansas Muskmelon

We like Kansas muskmelons. They are an heirloom variety with really good flavor, fine texture and enough sturdiness to stand up to humid weather and variable rainfall. The oval fruits are sutured (ridged) and moderately netted, averaging 4 lbs. They ripen almost all the way out to the rind (not much waste!).  Kansas also has good resistance to sap beetles that can destroy fruit of other varieties. It needs 90 days from transplanting to maturity. Pick these at full slip, and be sure to inhale the aroma at the stem end, as you carry them to the table. We buy Kansas from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Crimson Sweet watermelon in our garden

Crimson Sweet watermelon is the only one for us! It has the best flavor, though the pinky-red flesh might lead you to think it’s not ripe, compared to very red-fleshed varieties. We harvest ours from around 7/25 (75 days from transplanting) to the end of August.  There is a 10-14 day period of peak ripeness for each variety. We hope not to be still harvesting in September.

We save our own watermelon seed and select for earliness, flavor and disease resistance. We sell it via Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

A major factor affecting the taste is the skill of the harvester in discerning ripeness. The first sign we look for is the shriveling and browning of the tendril on the stem directly opposite 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 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. 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.

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. (They could be dated with a grease pencil/china marker). The ideal storage temperature is 50-60°F (10-15.5°C), with 90% humidity.

Keep the squirrels off!

 

Asparagus beans, okra and edamame

Cow Horn Okra

This week in the garden we have started harvesting some new, warm weather crops. Our okra is producing a few pods each day, even though the plants are still quite short. We like Cow Horn okra, which can get relatively large without getting fibrous. We cut at 5″, using pruners. Some years we have attached a card to the handles of the pruners we use for this job, with a life-size drawing of a 5″ pod. This helps new crew get it right.  We have a 90′ row, with plants about 18″ apart in the row. This will be enough for the hundred of us (some people never eat okra despite the cooks’ best efforts!)

Chinese Red Noodle Asparagus Bean

We grow asparagus beans (yard-long beans) to add variety to stir-fries, not as a major crop. To me, the flavor is not as good as bush green beans, but the shape and color, and the easy-care nature of this crop make them worthwhile. We grow Chinese Red Noodle or Purple Podded, which both keep their color when cooked. We harvest them at pencil-thickness, not at the yard-long puffy and stringy stage. Cut into one inch lengths, they brighten up any dish of mixed vegetables. Once the tall trellis is in place, this crop needs little work. They like the heat and are fairly drought-tolerant – they are more closely related to southern peas (cowpeas) than to green beans. They are not much troubled by Mexican bean beetles, and they’ll go on producing beans until the frost.

Normally we’d start picking sweet corn about now, but this year our first sowing suffered in the unusual early hot dry weather of our spring. We even plan for some degree of failure with our first sowing, because we do sow it early, which is always risky. We sow some seeds in Styrofoam Speedling flats on the same day we make our first outdoor sowing. The Styrofoam flats float in a water tank, needling little attention from us. Our plan is to use the seedlings at 2-3″ tall, to fill gaps in the rows. This year even this plan B didn’t work out. We were very busy and the seedlings got too big for successful transplanting. So we have very little early corn this year, sigh.

Next up, any day now, will be our first harvest of edamame. This is a kind of soy, which can be eaten fresh. We like Envy, a fast-maturing kind on short plants. We pull them up and strip the pods as soon as they are a bright green, moving towards gold, and the beans are a good size inside the pods. Some gardeners prefer a taller variety, and harvest several times from the same plants. We tried this, but found we prefer the once-over harvest. We make a succession of five or six sowings, to provide a new harvest every few weeks until frost.

Sowing greens for fall

Senposai – a delicious, cold-tolerant leaf green

One of my tasks this week has been sowing fall greens. I start sowing in the third or fourth week of June, and set aside time once a week for about six weeks, to sow more and weed and thin the older seedlings. The first two weeks are the most intense, and if I’m successful with those, I have a lot less work in the weeks following. If something goes wrong, I resow whatever didn’t come up, or died.

For fall greens, we don’t sow in flats but directly in a nursery bed, covered with rowcover on hoops to keep the harlequin bugs and flea beetles off. It’s less work, easier to keep them all watered, and they are not cramped in small cells: they make good roots and are more tolerant of hot conditions.

This year we are growing twelve different varieties of broccoli and eleven of cabbage! We hope to compare them and next year just grow the best few varieties of each  crop. We are growing to feed the hundred members of Twin Oaks Community, not to sell to a wholesaler, so we want a long broccoli season, and sideshoots are as important to us as main heads. We want cabbage that stores, as well as cabbage that is ready quickly. Our broccoli patch is part of the Novic trials, so we hope others will learn from our plants too.

To organize all these different sowings I have a spreadsheet and a map of the nursery beds. I prepare the bed, make the furrows, write a plastic label for each variety, measure the rows, set the labels in place, then water the furrows very thoroughly before sowing the seeds and covering them with (dry)soil from the sides of the furrows. This is a good way to help seeds germinate during hot dry weather: the seeds sit in the mud, where they have enough water to germinate and get up above ground. It’s much more successful than watering after sowing, when you sprinkle water on a dry surface and hope in goes down deep enough and doesn’t evaporate. And, contrary to some myths, brassica seeds can germinate very well at high temperatures. They just need the water right there where the seeds are.

We’ll transplant our seedlings when they are 3-4 weeks old, watering first, then

Kohlrabi is another of the less-common brassicas. We like to mix the purple plants with the green ones

digging them up and setting the bare-root transplants out in their rows. We’re planning 2000 ft of broccoli, 1300 ft of cabbage, 540 ft of senposai (a delicious tender leaf green with some frost tolerance), 360 ft of kohlrabi, and 90 ft each of Chinese cabbage and Yukina Savoy (a cold-tolerant giant tatsoi). That’s plenty of plants to rehouse in a short time and keep alive and happy.

This year we are trying two new things. One is Proteknet in place of rowcover. It’s a fine mesh nylon fabric that keeps bugs out, but lets more light in than most spun-bonded rowcovers, and has much better airflow. We think we’ll have healthier plants. Also, we can see them through the mesh, so we know they’ve germinated and can spot problems early. One year we checked under our rowcover and found fleabeetles had got in and had a busy week, chomping along the rows. We got the ProtekNet from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland, suppliers of good tools with the personal recommendations from the company.

The second new thing we’re trying is drip irrigation in the field. We use drip for some of our crops, but previously we used overhead sprinklers for the fall greens. We’ve had trouble in recent years with the extremely hot weather in late July and early August when we transplant. We think setting out the drip irrigation and running the water while we plant will help the plants get over their transplant shock. And we’ll be able to give them an hour of water in the middle of each day for the first week, to help them face this brutal weather we’re having. And the best bit is: they can get their mid-day watering without me walking up and down dragging a hose. I can be indoors blogging!

Leek Planting

Leek seedlings earlier in spring

The past few days we’ve been planting out leeks. We love these so much for winter harvests that we plan to plant about 3600 (5 beds at 90′ long, with 4 rows in each, and plants 6″ apart).

We sow March 21 and April 20 or so. Some people start leeks earlier, in the greenhouse, but we don’t want leeks in August (why compete with tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn and all the other summer delights?). By starting in late March, we can sow the seeds outdoors in a nursery bed, and just transplant the bare-root leeks when the time comes.

This year April was hot and dry here, and I failed to get good germination with the March sowing (it’s now a copse of galinsoga), so we’re relying on the April sowing to give us all we need. Luckily the weather cooled down, and the second sowing came up well. Leeks do grow slowly, and don’t compete well with weeds, so we did have to “rediscover” them a few weeks ago.

Now they are big enough to plant (between a pencil-lead and a pencil in thickness). We make a map of our nursery bed, because we are growing 5 varieties and don’t want them mixed up. We have fast-growing Lincoln and King Richard for eating in October and November, King Sieg for December, and the hardy Tadorna for December to February. We can eat 720 per month in winter, between a hundred people. They make a nice change from leafy greens and root vegetables, and they are a good source of onion flavor after our bulb onions have all been eaten.

To plant them, we make deep furrows down the bed, then dibble holes every 6″ in the bottom of the furrows. We dig up some seedlings and put them in small buckets of water. having the roots covered in water helps the plants separate from each other, and stay in good shape in hot weather. Leeks are the only thing we’d even consider transplanting in the mornings here, as the afternoon temperatures can be brutal. Because leeks don’t have wide spreading leaves, they don’t lose water fast.

We shake out a plant separate from its neighbors, then twirl it down into a hole. Sometimes bobbing it up and down helps settle it with the roots at the bottom of the hole and not folded back on themselves. Having wet roots makes this task easier. After planting a section, we bring cans of water and fill up the holes. The goal is to fill the hole with water but not with soil, leaving the small plants protected from sunshine, deep in the hole. They have room to grow a bit before the soil fills in the hole. This gives long white shanks without the need to h

On Monday, after planting the first bed, we had a heavy rain, which filled in the holes anyway, totally covering the smaller leeks. We’ll need to do some remedial gap-filling later. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we planted more beds. Today I decided discretion was the better part of valor, and in view of the forecast for temperatures over 100F for the next 3 days, we’d hold off on more planting till Monday. We have plenty of other jobs we can do!

Potato Planting and Carol Deppe’s Writing

A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests

We’ve just planted our second crop of potatoes for the year. At 3450 row ft (about a quarter of an acre), this planting is a bit bigger than our March planting. We aim to grow a whole year’s worth of potatoes for a hundred people. Planting in June has several advantages – for us the main one is that we can store this harvest in a root cellar over the winter, without using any electricity to control temperature. If we planted our whole year’s supply in March, we’d harvest in July and have to store them over the summer, and then all the way round till the next July. It’s also nice to split the work up into smaller chunks.

Up until this spring, we made furrows for our potatoes and covered and hilled them using a BCS 732 rototiller (or walk-behind tractor, as the retailers prefer to designate it). This is doable, but labor-intensive. This year we set up a toolbar on the tractor with sweeps to make furrows, and then discs to form hills. It’s been a learning process, with some teething troubles, but  I do think it’s the way of the future for us. (I just don’t have the stamina for all the rototilling any more!).

Compared to using the rototiller, the tractor needs a lot more space to manoeuver. We were lucky in having an area of cover crops next to the potatoes for this planting, so we could run over the edge onto “next door”. In the spring planting, we had a hydrant in the middle of the patch. that’s a minor problem with the rototiller, but a bigger problem with the tractor. Keeping the row spacing tight is harder with the tractor, and in the spring, we ended up with some wider spacings, which lead to more weeds than usual, and poorer hills. This week (our second time using the tractor), we managed much better row spacing. Next year, we’ll allow more space to turn the tractor, right from the planning stage.

Another “surprise feature” this time, was that it rained right after we’d planted (yes, before we’d covered the potatoes). The forecast had suggested a small chance of showers later in the day, but the 3/4″ drenching was a complete surprise! So we had to wait two days for the soil to dry out enough to take the tractor again. The soil was clumpy, but not impossible. Probably we could have covered and hilled sooner with the rototiller, as it weights less, and compacts the soil less. And the soil would have ended up with a finer texture. Overall I think the trade-offfs of using the tractor are worth it.

The potatoes came to no visible harm sitting in their furrow for two days. We had pre-sprouted them, so the sprouts grew a bit bigger and greener. Luckily we didn’t have extremely hot temperatures those days.

Recently I learned some new information about ideal soil temperatures for potato planting. This came from a workshop on Sustainable Potato Production by Rusty Nuffer at Southern SAWG in January 2012. In spring, wait for soil temperatures to reach 50F (10C) before planting. In summer, the ideal soil temperature is 60-75F (15-24C). Ours was 70F (21C). It’s possible to pre-irrigate to lower the soil temperature in summer. (And hopefully nature won’t mid-irrigate for you as it did for us this week!)

 Carol Deppe, author of the wonderful book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production And Self-Reliance In Uncertain Times, has written a very interesting article The 20 Potato a Day Diet versus the Nearly All Potato Winter about the nutritional and gastronomic wonders of potatoes.  It will inspire you to grow and eat more potatoes!

Garlic Harvest

We’ve just finished our garlic harvest. It matured a week earlier than usual and there was no arguing with it! Most of our garlic is an unknown hardneck type which we’ve been growing for years. We save our best bulbs for replanting. I watch the tips of the leaves, and when several are brown, but we still have several green-tipped younger leaves, then I do my second ripeness test. I pull up a few and cut them open across the middle. As soon as I see air spaces between the cloves and what’s left of the stem in the center, I know it really is time to harvest.

This year we started 5/31. it takes us many days at an hour or two a day, with a big crew, to get them all up and hanging in the barn. And as soon as the big hardneck planting was cleared, we disked the patch and sowed buckwheat and soy cover crop. This area will be planted in fall carrots at the end of July and it really pays to minimize the weed seed in carrot beds before planting. I was happy to get the cover crops sown just before the last rain.

And then we moved on to harvesting our softneck garlic, Polish White. Some of it had a mold problem while growing, but most of it is still good. We finished yesterday.

Our garlic beds early this spring

Some years it’s hard to get to harvesting the softneck before it’s past its best stage. We want it to store, but if the cloves have already started to separate, and they don’t have many protective layers of skin left, it’s a losing proposition. Now we’re tilling those beds, one was sown to carrots this morning. (We do like to eat a lot of carrots and a lot of garlic too!)