Harvesting watermelon and eggplant, transplanting broccoli

Crimson Sweet watermelon Photo Nina Gentle
Crimson Sweet watermelon
Photo Nina Gentle

August is an exhausting month in our garden, and on many farms – so much to harvest (successful farming!), so many weeds growing, lots of irrigation to manage, and we’re not done with planting for another month (and then there’s still garlic!). We are ready for some crops to be finished, so we have more time for other things. Annually at this time, we engage in a “how many watermelons do we need anyway?” conversation. We have passed 400. Our goal is usually 600-800. In 2012 our peak day of watermelon harvest was August 9 with 99 melons.This year our peak day was August 6 with 127.

The 30th watermelon selected for seed, marked with a grease pencil. Photo Nina Gentle
The 30th watermelon selected for seed, marked with a grease pencil.
Photo Nina Gentle

In 2014 we decided to stop harvesting watermelons for eating on September 1, when we reached 531. We processed more for seeds for sale after that. Our Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelons are huge and delicious. This summer has not been so hot. We haven’t been eating 22 per day as we do in really hot summers. Maybe we can stop soon? Then we can plant a cover crop of winter rye, crimson clover and Austrian winter peas with plenty of time to grow before next year’s sweet corn crop.


Nadia eggplant. Photo Nina Gentle
Nadia eggplant.
Photo Nina Gentle

 

As I said, this summer has not been so hot, and ironically this is the third year of our eggplant variety trials, looking for good heat-resistant variety that compares well with Nadia, which we like a lot, but found wanting in the hot summer of 2012.  In 2013 we simply counted the yield per plant and compared 4 varieties.

Epic eggplant Photo Nina Gentle
Epic eggplant
Photo Nina Gentle

In 2014 we weighed the fruits too, to find out if some varieties had smaller fruits. We found that all the varieties we grew have similar sized fruits. Nadia gave the best yield per plant,  Epic was second, Traviata third, with Florida Highbush a poor fourth. For 2015 we added a fifth variety, Florida Market, (like Florida Highbush, this is also open-pollinated.).

 

Florida Highbush eggplant Photo Nina Gentle
Florida Highbush eggplant
Photo Nina Gentle

So far this year, Epic is winning, at 4.1 fruits and 3.4 pounds per plant, with an average of 0.84 pounds per fruit. Traviata is running second, at 3.1 fruits and 2.4 pounds per plant (average of 0.79 pounds per fruit). Nadia is third, at 2.3 fruits and 1.8 pounds per plant (average 0.75 pounds per eggplant). Florida Highbush (yes, it is a tall plant!) is beating Nadia on tonnage (2.1 pounds/plant) but losing on size (in other words, more smaller eggplant). Florida Market is trailing, with many days providing no harvest. I’ll do a full report in another month or so, when we decide to stop harvesting.


We have at last finished filling the gaps in our endless rows of cabbage and broccoli. We started the transplanting 4 weeks ago. We have been doing this work 7-8.30 pm, and it has seemed especially grueling, as we really needed more help. Lacking enough workers, the job went on and on. We also got into a spiral of shorter daylight by starting late and needing to continue later in the year. And the over-large plants were harder to plant and less likely to do well. And having so many shifts with the irrigation running led to over-watering especially at the low end of the field. And the weeds grew bigger . . . . More people and fewer weeks of transplanting would lead to greater success and more happiness.

We did a brief review of the process, in hopes of making enough changes so that next year the job will be less of an endurance test.Here’s our ideas so far:

  1. Adjust our crop rotation to avoid the need to plant the fall cabbage and broccoli after the spring potatoes (a very fast turnaround with no slack for things going wrong).
  2. Reduce the number of broccoli plants.
  3. Increase the number of crew each evening. Stay on top of scheduling people.
  4. Leave better information for the crew the next day. This might only save a small amount of time, but it would reduce stress. We use maps and various highlighters to show what’s done.
  5. Avoid over-watering.
  6. When it’s time to do gap-filling, assign each worker a row, and have them fill gaps in one row as they find them, watering in as they progress. Avoid any temptation to look and count gaps first – it wastes time!
  7. No, we really don’t want to do this work in the late afternoons. We’ll stick with evenings.
Fall broccoli Photo Kati Falger
Fall broccoli
Photo Kati Falger

Farmer-to-farmer Tips for Dealing with Climate Change

Red Salad Bowl lettuce. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

As I read Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture I was struck by the many good ideas from farmers and growers for reducing the risks of climate change on our livelihood. The major transformation being brought by climate change is hard to consider. Producing food in the face of an increasingly erratic and unpredictable climate will be a big challenge. Here I will list the challenges and the practices mentioned by the farmers interviewed for the book. In the future I will explore some of the ideas in more detail.

Laura Lengnick’s framework

The vulnerability of each farm to the adverse effects of climate change is a combination of its exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity.

  • Exposure is the term for the conditions the region is facing: the severity of the risks. Collectively, we can reduce exposure overall by reducing emissions and increasing carbon sequestration. These broad efforts are vital, but will have less immediate effects at a farm level.
  • Sensitivity is a measure of how much a given farm is affected by those conditions. For example, if the farm in a flood plain in a region that can expect more floods in future, the sensitivity is higher than for farms in other regions, or farms in that region on high land.
  • Exposure and sensitivity together decide just how bad the effects of climate change could be.
  • Assessing the farm’s sensitivities provides a good starting point for planning adaptive strategies.
  • Adaptation is the most successful method for addressing the local challenges of climate change. Adaptive capacity includes our individual capability to respond and plan, our knowledge and understanding of the options, as well as each farm’s particular combination of economic, social and ecological conditions (the operating context).

 

A frosted strawberry flower with a black center. Photo Kathryn Simmons
A frosted strawberry flower with a black center.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The challenges

  • Water issues (too much and too little) are being the most immediate changes in conditions.
  • Rising summer air temperatures, including night temperatures.
  • Average temperatures are set to rise 4-10 F before the end of this century, depending on our national reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, if any.
  • Colder winter and spring temperatures affecting bud burst of fruit and nut trees.
  • More extreme temperatures outside of our experience.
  • Increasing CO2 levels will provide some positive effects such as faster crop growth and earlier harvests.
  • Weeds which can grow faster than before.
  • Different bugs.
  • Different pest mammals.
  • Different plant diseases.
  • Hurricanes and other strong winds.
  • The East has become a bit warmer and has heavier rainfall/snowfall, while the West has become hotter and has a smaller percentage change in the amount of heavy precipitation.
Young blueberry bush in the snow. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Young blueberry bush in the snow.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

In the Southeast, farmers already report

  • More frequent extreme weather events of all types, more often.
  • More frequent summer droughts,
  • More and hotter heat waves,
  • Higher summer humidity,
  • Increased intensity of hurricanes,
  • Starting around 1980, the length of the frost-free season in the SE became 6 days longer. Ours is the region of the US with the smallest change.
  • The Southeast has seen a 27% increase in the amount of rain and snow dropping down as very heavy precipitation.
We run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.
We run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.

Some responses

We need to be ready for these challenges, at the same time as we reduce our own carbon footprints and campaign for national changes. In some cases we have already been practicing some of the skills we’ll need. Other practices we will need to make a conscious effort to learn.

  • Grow a diversity of crops and livestock to spread the risk. Whatever the weather, something will grow (surely?)
  • Diversify to include some annual vegetables because of problems with late frosts or insufficient chilling hours that can lead to a complete crop failure in perennial crops such as fruits and nuts.
  • Grow mixtures of cover crop seed, cocktails of 10 – 20 different cover crops, to increase the chance of improving the soil and gaining longer-term benefits of resilience.
  • Build soil organic matter been more than we have been doing.
  • Learn from our experience (monitor crops, keep good records, adjust planting schedules).
  • Stop growing the most challenging crops.
  • Consider focusing on spring and fall crops, reducing crop production in mid-summer.
  • Learn from the experience of other local farmers (pool our wisdom)
  • Consult farmers in regions that have been hotter/wetter/drier and have had pest and disease issues we anticipate.
  • Pay attention to the weather and learn to forecast local weather.
  • Make plans we are prepared to change as conditions change. Resilience.
  • For risky crops, have a Plan B if conditions are not right at planting time or harvest time.
  • Have enough workers, seeds and machines to take advantage of smaller windows of opportunity.
  • Take advantage of any changes we can benefit from. Some vegetable growers noted the arrival of longer growing seasons, and particularly, a longer fall season before cold weather arrived.
  • Improve irrigation systems and access to water supplies.
  • Learn the water needs and critical periods for water for each crop we grow.
  • Improve soil drainage and soil water-holding capacity.
  • Bring more land into production.
  • Increase yields by intensifying production.
  • Plant shelter belt trees to reduce impact of increased strength winds.
  • Learn about C3 and C4 plants. Production of C3 plants increases as CO2 increases, but are less productive under hot and dry conditions. We’ll need to be paying attention.
  • Learn about Growing Degree Days and how to use this information to make decisions based on current conditions. Almanacs from the 19th century won’t help us decide planting dates any more.
  • Practice sustainable soil nutrient cycling for maximum benefits.
  • Use hoophouses for weather-protection as well as season extension and pest protection.
  • If fruit crops are an important part of your farm, invest in wind machines to combat spring frosts during bloom.
  • Keep a living root in the ground at all times – reduce periods of unplanted soil.
  • Consider cross-training: vegetable growers look at including some livestock, livestock farmers look at including some vegetables.
The 30' x 96' gothic-style hoophouse at Twin Oaks Community
The 30′ x 96′ gothic-style hoophouse at Twin Oaks Community

Some Resources

 

 

Garlic harvest finished, fall crop planning, tomato bug heads-up

Hanging garlic in vertical netting. Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier
Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

Today we finished harvesting our garlic. It’s a good feeling to have it all safely hanging to cure in the barn. Our climate is humid so we use lots of box fans to help the drying process. We started harvesting our hardneck garlic about ten days ago, and worked on that (among other tasks) for 4 or 5 days. We were short of workers, so progress slowed, and the softneck garlic took us parts of 5 days too, although there is much less of it. We grew 2880 feet of hardneck and 1080 feet of softneck.. This year’s crop looks good, both in size and condition. In about three weeks, when the necks are dry, we’ll start trimming, sorting and storing.

In our enthusiasm, we decided to grow more softneck next year, 1520 feet, and a little more hardneck, 3200 feet. The latter is just because the crop rotation brings the garlic to the central garden next year, where the rows are 200 feet long, compared to 180 feet in our west garden.

This leads directly into my next topic: fall crop planning. We are past the peak of planting things now. In the row crop areas we have the summer-planted potatoes, three more sweet corn sowings, and several more rows of beans, squash and cucumbers to go. The area in permanent raised beds will still see quite a lot of changes, and yesterday afternoon, while it was 97F outside, several of us sat down indoors to plan the raised bed crops until the end of 2015.

In early spring, we plan where to put the crops beforel August 4th, then in mid-June we plan the rest of the year. Usually we review the June-August 4th plans too, in case we want to change those for a better idea. In preparation for the group planning session, I toured the raised bed area and updated the map to reflect reality. For instance, our first bean sowings were a failure (it was just too cold!), so I whited out all reference to those. This makes crop rotation easier, as we don’t worry about crops we didn’t actually grow! I also prepared a chart of crops we might grow, along with quantities and start and finish dates. I divided the list by crop family (rotation, rotation, rotation!). And I updated our quirky Colored Spots Plan (here’s a version from two years ago)

Twin Oaks Garden Colored Spots Plan for crop planning
Twin Oaks Garden Colored Spots Plan for crop planning

It’s a map of our raised beds, with a colored dot for each crop grown, and a vertical line for each Winter Solstice. It’s a visually easy way to check if any given bed has had, say, brassicas in the past few years. A lot of information in a small space.

We started with the carrot family, as we usually grow up to 10 beds of carrots in our 60 beds in any given year. This year our first three beds did very well, so then we skipped a couple of plantings. We have one new bed of carrots, sown in late May. We decided to skip the next two Carrots are only sown here in June and July if we really must – hot weather carrots just don’t taste that sweet. We agreed to do our usual big planting of fall carrots on August 4th, in the row crop plot where we’ve just dug the garlic from. Hopefully we can grow a round of buckwheat between now and then. We were persuaded by a carrot enthusiast to grow a bed of over-wintered carrots, which we haven’t done for a couple of years. it’s a bit risky, they could all freeze to death. But if they don’t die, they are so delicious!

Ruby chard. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Next we moved on to the brassicas. Nothing new here. We debated the pros and cons of turnips, and the pros won, so we’ll do two beds of turnips. We raised the question of kohlrabi – no-one keen. Beets and spinach next – we all love those. This group challenges our rotation, because we grow so much winter spinach, and spring and fall beets, and a bed of Swiss chard, all to be taken into account.

Alliums next. As I said, we decided on more softneck garlic. On to legumes. No cowpeas this year. No late successions of edamame. As usual, we’ll grow our last succession of green beans in our raised beds, where access is easiest, soil drains quickest, and we can keep an eye out for problems as the weather gets colder, and perhaps windier. We also plant our last successions of slicing cucumbers and summer squash and zucchini in the raised beds too, for the same reasons. It also lets us get the big row crop areas put into cover crops in a timely way.

A bed of young transplanted lettuce. Photo Wren Vile
A bed of young transplanted lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

The planning task ends with finding homes for our last three beds of outdoor lettuce for the year. We plan these last because lettuce is such a quick turnaround crop, and only needs short-term openings of space between other crops. We transplant 120 lettuce roughly each week, fitting three plantings into each 90 ft long bed. After that we transplant into our greenhouse (until spring when we need the space and the compost they’re growing in, for our spring seedlings).

Lastly I want to mention a post I saw on Growing Small Farms by Debbie Roos in Chatham County, North Carolina. It’s about the tomato bug, a pest newly discovered there. It can do a lot of damage, so I, for one, will be keeping my eyes open for any sign of it arriving here in central Virginia. Click the link for lots of good photos and information about this pest. This website is a great source of information, and includes Farmer Resources, Web Resources, Crop Production and Pest Management.

Article about Austrian winter peas, frost, horticultural myths

GFM_October2014_cover_300px

Winter peas in rye.  Credit Cindy Conner
Winter peas in rye.
Credit Cindy Conner

The October issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, with my article about using Austrian winter peas as a cover crop. The lovely photo on the cover is by Cindy Conner, from her blog Homeplace Earth. We like winter peas because they can be sown quite late in the season,  several weeks later than clovers. This gives more chance of growing your own nitrogen after finishing up a food crop in the fall. We sow winter peas until 11/8 or so, here in central Virginia (zone 7). We mix them with either winter rye or wheat for vertical support, and to add biomass when we incorporate the cover crop in spring. To get best value from legumes such as winter peas, wait till they flower before tilling them in. That’s late April here. To make this work, we arrange our crop rotation to have winter peas followed by food crops we want to plant between mid-May and July. Winter squash, watermelon, mid-season sweet corn, late sweet corn, sweet potatoes and June-planted white potatoes all fit the bill. A bonus is that the tender tips and tendrils of the cover crop peas make a gourmet salad ingredient in April, right when we are all crying out for fresh flavors. As always, the go-to information about this cover crop is available in the SARE book Managing Cover Crops Profitably

Other great articles in this issue include Eight tips for winter success by Ben Hartman. He writes about a gathering of experienced vegetable growers with suppliers, researchers and extension workers in Vermont, to compare practices and increase the amount of locally-grown winter produce. Zones 4 and 5. These growers are not timid! The eight tips include the importance of ventilation, using inner row covers close to the crops inside the hoophouse, removing those inner covers on sunny days (or at least twice a week), hardening off plants in the fall so they’d survive winter temperatures, using supplemental heat wisely if at all, using IRT or black plastic mulch for heading crops, paying attention to soil fertility and salt levels, and planning ahead to combat chickweed! The Frozen Ground Gathering participants have posted many of their Powerpoints.

Susan Studer King writes about a “21st century version of a barn-raising”  neighbors helping one another install solar panels – solar co-ops. The GfM editor, Lynn Byczynski, writes about hoophouse upgrades to save energy. Gretel Adams writes about growing stocks in the hoophouse. I love reading her articles even though I don’t grow flowers!


Meanwhile, here at Twin Oaks, we had a first very light, very patchy frost on Saturday night, well, probably Sunday morning 10/5. Very little damage, a few of the sweet potato vines hit, and a few of the Roma tomatoes. We scurried to harvest Romas on Saturday, gaining 4 big buckets of red ones and about 13 buckets of green ones. We’ve now set the green ones out on egg trays to ripen in the basement. Egg trays make great ripening containers for the egg-shaped Roma tomatoes. I mean those grey square pulp trays that hold 30 eggs or tomatoes. They stack well, are lightweight, and free! We didn’t finish harvesting tomatoes, and now have a warmer break before any more frosts, so before we harvest the rest, we can turn our attention to digging up the sweet potatoes.

Not everyone likes jumbo sweet potatoes, but for those cooking for a hundred, they are a bonus. Credit McCune Porter
Not everyone likes jumbo sweet potatoes, but for those cooking for a hundred, they are a bonus. Credit McCune Porter

For those living on the East Coast, here’s a heads up about a full lunar eclipse early tomorrow morning. 6.25 am, before the sun comes up, just before the moon sets.


Hope to see some of you at Kansas for the Mother Earth News Fair. The schedule has been updated to show my workshops.MENFairLogo


And I’ll end with a link to A Way to Garden, a lovely blog from Margaret Roach, writing about her interview with Linda Chalker-Scott, who is busting horticultural myths, such as digging a huge hole and filling it with potting soil when transplanting a young tree. Lots of fun to read, and lots of wasted time and effort saved!