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

Efficient Harvesting Techniques in Growing for Market magazine

The cover of the August issue of Growing for Market

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.

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.

Twin Oaks August Garden Calendar

(MONTH OF TOMATOES)

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.

Sort potatoes 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

Early Aug:

Sow beans #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.

Water sweet 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

Sow kale #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.