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.
The August issue of Growing for Market magazine is out! In it on page 9, you’ll find my article on how to harvest efficiently, mostly without machinery. Trade secrets are revealed – like when is a cabbage fully mature, and just what is “full slip” for a melon. And which crops should you harvest later in the shift, when the dew has dried from the leaves.
I cover organization, planning and management, finding good crop sequences (don’t leave the corn languishing in the heat while you get the beans!), tools, and various harvesting methods such as cutting whole heads, picking individual leaves, and “buzz-cutting” so the plant can regrow. And that’s just the leafy greens. There’s also the roots, including onions, and fruits (botanically speaking) such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and podded crops like beans and peas. Food safety, field washing and short-term storage until the happy diners get their hands on the food – all this is covered too.
When you grow 60 different crops, how do you make time to harvest them all? Well, of course, not everything is ready to harvest at once, even in August. Some crops we pick every day, some every other day, some twice a week. Here’s a trick we use: For the every-other-day crops we have developed an ingenious phonetic system. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we harvest crops beginning with a k/c/g sound; on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we harvest b and p crops. This works almost perfectly, with just a few crops we force into place: eggPlant not eGGplant! sPinach, senPosai! This system works well for us, and adds some amusement. It also ensures we harvest some cooking greens each day: kale, collards, cabbage some days, broccoli, pak choy, spinach on the other days. Beans take over from peas as the spring heats up. Corn gets picked on the days we don’t pick labor-intensive beans.
Our main tools are Garden Way type carts, 5 gallon buckets and knives. Although special harvest knives can be bought, and we have some of those, we get most of our knives at yard sales and thrift stores. Great value for the money! Serrated bread knives can be excellent tools for cutting cabbage and kohlrabi, anything with a thick stem.
My next few articles will be about dealing with nature’s surprises, being ready for anything, predicting what’s about to happen next, and deciding when to change plans and grow something different. Climate change is here, and we growers will need to adapt.
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.
Here’s the list of what we plan to do in our garden this month. We’re in central Virginia. Our average first frost is October 14
During the month:
Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce every 5 to 3 days. Switch to cold-tolerant varieties after 20th. Transplant sowings #22, 23, 24, 25, 26.Set out 120 plants every 6-5 days (1/3 bed). Store seed in fridge.
Sortpotatoes 2 weeks after storing. Ventilate root cellar every few nights when coolest. Gradually get temperature down to 65°F by the end of the month. Try not to have temperature reversals.
String weave tomatoes once a week until plants reach top of posts.
Onions: move from basement to walk-in cooler as soon as space allows.
Monitor for grasshoppers on brassicas, carrots, beets.
Prevent nutsedge tuber formation by weekly cultivation in Aug and Sept.
Seed saving: Roma tomatoes –select plants, based on yield and septoria resistance. Mark & harvest seeds (usually 1 bucket each time) on days before bulk harvests. Don’t use diseased fruit or fruit from plants in decline. Keep 4-5 days till dead ripe, scoop seeds on Food Processing shift days. Ferment at 70°F for 3 days. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest Mon, scoop Friday, wash and dry Monday. Save 4 buckets tomatoes for 130gm seed.
Crimson Sweet Watermelon Seed: Overmature 10 days, harvest, scoop seeds, ferment 4 days at 70°F. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest and scoop Tuesday, wash Saturday. 1 melon = 22 g seed. 22 melons = 1 lb seed.
Perennials: Make new strawberry beds: Compost, till, raise, drip tape, newspaper and hay mulch. Chip or sawdust paths. One new patch follows corn #3, other follows part of the Green Fallow area. Plantnew strawberries using plugs, rooted potted runners or plants carefully thinned from last year’s beds. Water strawberry plants for next year’s crop, weed, and give compost. Mow aisles for fall raspberries, grapes. Remove blueberry roof netting if not done in July. Mow, weed, water in general. Grapes:visit, log progress, tie in, once in early August, once in late August.
Cover crops:Sow spring oats and soy for winter-killed cover in empty beds. (Not rye – may head up before winter.) Can sow buckwheat, soy, sorghum sudan, clovers; possibly winter barley, Miami peas; or Lana woolypod vetch at 2-3 oz /100 sq. ft. with oats
Sowbeans #6 (8/3, 15 days after #5), cukes#5 (slicing, by 8/5, latest) & zucchini and summer squash #5 (by 8/9), winter & fall radishes, turnips (by 8/15 if possible, by 9/15 latest), Swiss chard, 6 beds kale (2 each on 8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24 until enough is established. Use rowcover against fleabeetles), beets (can sow dry or presoak 12 hours; sow 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp soil, keep damp, use shadecloth?). Sow all the fall carrots if not sown in late July & flame weed. Sow fall brassicas. Consider sowing sunflowers in kale beds to encourage grasshopper-predator birds.
Put spinach seeds in freezer now, two weeks before sowing, to improve germination .
Till between rows of corn #5, undersow with soy.
Transplant lettuce #22, 23. Finish transplanting all brassicas. Hoe and wheel-hoe the brassica patch, one section each morning. Re-cover or take covers from earlier plantings.
Watersweet potatoes when vines fully extended, (critical period for water).
Potato Onions, third sorting 8/5-10: check through, snip tops, separate clusters, sort by size, and weigh or estimate yield. Save 6 racks (150#) large (2-2½”), 5 racks (100#) medium (1½-2”), 4 racks (80#) small (<1½”) per 360 row foot bed wanted. Sell spare.
Plan and map next year’s main garden so best cover crops can be planted. Order winter cover crop seed.
Mid Aug: DON’T sow carrots or kale w/o cover (grasshoppers).
Till or wheel-hoe between broccoli rows (uncover), and undersow with mammoth red clover, white clover and crimson clover mix. Till between rows of corn #6 and undersow with oats & soy
Transplant lettuce #24
Sowkale #2, 3 (2 beds each time), fall radishes #2. Thin rutabagas to 10”, by 4 weeks-old.
Order seeds if needed: winter lettuce, early cabbage, other salads, kale, spinach, beets, onions, peppers, hoophouse tomatoes, winter hoophouse greens.
Late Aug: Sow kale as needed, scallions #5.
Finish fall carrot sowing if unable to get it done by early August – Flame weed.
Really finish transplanting brassicas, including kale from #1 beds. Transplant lettuce #25, 26
1st Fall disking: Disk corn #1 (future garlic), maybe form beds, sow buckwheat, soy (and Sorghum Sudan?) Disk corn #2 patch, sow oats & soy (future spring broccoli & cabbage). Or sow corn #1&2 in oats & soy and make garlic beds in October.
Disk old spring broccoli (may be already in summer cover crops), in time to sow rye and vetch 9/7.
August Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, cantaloupes, carrots, celery, chard, corn, cow peas, crabapples, cukes, edamame, eggplant, grapes (early or late Aug), komatsuna, lettuce, limas, maruba santoh, okra, pak choy, peppers, hot peppers, fall raspberries, Romas, senposai, summer squash, Tokyo bekana, tomatoes, turnip thinnings, watermelons, winter squash (acorn & cha cha ), yukina savoy, zucchini.
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.
Those of you close enough to Charlottesville, Virginia can still buy tickets for my workshop at the Heritage Harvest Festival in September at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. See the Heritage Harvest Festival website for more information.
My workshop, Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests, is at 9 am on Friday September 14. I will cover how to plan sowing dates for continuous supplies of popular summer crops, such as beans, squash, cucumbers and sweet corn, as well as year-round lettuce.
You’ll get the chance for a preview of one of the chapters in my book, and to ask questions and share your experience with providing continuous harvests.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
Two weeks ago my copy editor and I finished getting the wrinkles out of my punctuation and phrasing. We had to extend ten days beyond our original deadline, but now we’re done! Sigh of relief.
The next stage, now the copy-editing is done, will be for the typesetters and design people at New Society Publishers to lay out the pages and proofread. Then I get to read it all again, in the stage they call First Pages. I guess that will be August and September. Then Kathryn Simmons at Twin Oaks will make the index. She’s not only one of the members of the Twin Oaks Indexing crew, but also a very experienced vegetable grower herself. (Maybe you’ve never thought about how a book comes to have an index. It doesn’t happen by magic! Click on the link to learn more.)
I’m also continuing to work with marketing people at NSP, compiling lists of magazines, websites and organizations that are a good match with my book, and good places to put reviews or advertisements. I’m also looking for events at which I’d like to make presentations. I’m negotiating a couple of possible bookings right now. Soon I will have postcards, fliers and bookmarks to distribute at events too.
The book will get printed in early winter and the publication date is February 1, 2013. I’m excited!
Meanwhile, I’m sending an article every month to Growing for Marketmagazine. For August I’ve written about manual harvesting techniques. People who don’t want to wait till the book comes out to start reading my work can get a sub to GfM. It’s a great magazine, full of the details small-scale growers need to be even more successful than they already are.
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!)
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.
This new book (published by the University of Minnesota Press) offers a real-life organic vegetable farmer’s memoir. Normally, I look for inspiring reading during the winter, to refresh myself for the next farming season. This book, however, is a perfect mid-summer revival aid for farmers and gardeners flagging in the heat. It gives us perspective on our troubles as we read of Atina’s and husband Martin’s struggles with wild weather (hailstones the size of B potatoes!), continuous hard work, and land lost to developers and threatened by a pipeline. The immediacy of their powerful and tender story and Atina’s decision to stand up and become a leader for what she believes in gives us inspiration. We can feel validation of our work as organic vegetable growers as we read that 1¼ acres of kale can produce 182,000 servings, and if our marketing is as good as the Diffleys’, we can sell them all within 42 miles of the farm! Organic farming sequesters 15-28% more carbon than industrial farming, with a 33% reduction in fossil fuel use.
Atina and Martin owned and operated Gardens of Eagan (one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest) from 1973-2007, so you can be sure Atina knows farming! Starting as a confused teenager (as many of us do), Atina grew into a strong, committed passionate leader of the organic farming movement. Her descriptions of the beauty, deep satisfaction, multiple stresses and sheer exhaustion of farming ring so true. She talks about the meaning in the daily life of organic farmers, of investing in the soil life, creating balance, seeing the potential of each field, and bringing that out. “Dirt is just soil that’s out of place. Soil has structure. Dirt does not.”
Early in the book, you might wonder if she’ll ever make it as a farmer, but her determination and perseverance, and the quality of attention she brings to what happens on the farm ensure her success, and our gripping reading. The Diffley family farm is lost to developers, who carve and churn up the soil even while Atina, Martin, their two children and their crew rush to harvest their crops. They decide to piece together a farm from patches of land they buy and rent, until they find the perfect farm to buy. Being itinerant farmers is no easy choice, and requires exceptional organizational skills.
One of their organizational strengths comes from using Holistic Management tools learned at a workshop. She and Martin each write “quality of life” statements, answering the question “If we lived perfect lives, what would it look like?” Each winter they quit farming for a week, party and relax in clean clothes, with clean fingernails. Even talking about the weather is an “illicit act” during the Quitting Week. Then they state their goals for the year and recommit. When they farm again it is a conscious choice. Decisions have to fit their quality of life statements.
Atina says: “I have the same nightmare every winter. If I think about everything it takes to pull off a successful season, it seems impossible . . . [but] if we have a plan in place and I stay in the present, then the work is manageable. . . I just have to remember not to look too far ahead.” Exactly the same is true for me, maybe for you too.
One year they decide to simplify their crops and cut a deal where each picks a crop to drop. Goodbye to potatoes, onions, winter squash, leeks. Sort of. Atina admits that she and Martin then each sneak some winter squash in, unable to completely let go of the experience they have gained in growing this crop.
This amazing book also has gems of practical information embedded in the story, and they’re worth noting. Techniques include the use of farm micro-climates (the first place the purslane germinates is the best spot for early tomatoes and melons); moving flats of aphid-infested seedlings out into the center of a field of vetch for the day, to have the insects in the vetch feast on the aphids; accepting up to 50% defoliation of broccoli plants between the six-leaf stage and heading, because it will not decrease the yield; reducing the chance of aphid-vectored diseases in a squash planting by sowing a “toothbrush strip” of wheat around the perimeter (when the aphids chew on the wheat it cleans the viruses from their mouthparts, so the squash stay virus-free).
The farm grows in size and complexity each year, with a bigger work crew and more refrigerated trucks. They also develop a massive supportive community of consumers and produce retailers, which is to prove its worth as the story develops. When the Diffleys find their new farm, they can finally set the washing-line poles in concrete. But a big cloud comes over the perfect horizon – Koch Industries claim eminent domain to route their pipeline through their farm. Atina fights this, not just for their farm, but for other organic farmers too, establishing a protocol for safeguards to be taken if organic farm soil and wildlife habitat is disrupted.
The normal legal process for a farm trying to prevent a pipeline across their land involves proposing other people’s farms as possible alternative routes. This process divides us and causes each of us to need to compete with each other and fight individually. Atina Diffley created an Organic Appendix to the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan (AIMP) that is legally required when farmland is dsirupted. Atina and her legal team got the pipeline company to accept that (in the words of Dr Deborah Allen) “The losses to an organic vegetable farm from diminished soil quality are of a different character and order of magnitude than on a conventional crop farm.” Healthy soil is necessary for a successful organic farm. By creating this Organic Appendix and getting the pipeline company to accept it, Atina made something other organic farms could also use to prevent eminent domain devastation on their farms. It could also encourage other farms to transition to certified organic and benefit from the Appendix. Far from falling for the individual solution and fighting only for her farm, while further jeopardizing other farms, Atina found a way to unite with other organic farmers in fighting the assault.
This mixture of heart-breaking and encouraging is what makes the book so engaging. Atina tells us: “Every winter I do recover from the season’s exhaustion, but if I push too far, I won’t. As we age, personal balance will require more consistent time for renewal.” In keeping with her wisdom, after 35 years of farming, Atina and Martin retired from active farming to become educators and consultants about organic farming. See their Organic Farming Works website for more info.