Rain, corn and beans, garden reading

Young bean plants Photo Steve Albert, Harvest to Table
Young bean plants
Photo Steve Albert, Harvest to Table

Well, we’ve had a lot of rain here in central Virginia: 6.3″ (16 cm) in 11 days from 4/26-5/6. The month of April landed us with 4.9″ (12.4 cm) and the first week of May with 2.6″ (6.6 cm). Last week I wrote about my worries for the beans and corn we’d sown before the big rains. The photo above is from Harvest to Table, a website for “beginner and veteran gardener alike”, with the goal of helping people “find easy solutions to common garden problems and . . . bring great food from your garden to your table.” I was happy to see our beans coming up 9 days after sowing, on Thursday! Thank goodness for raised beds! We had canals either side of the beds.

Young sweet corn. Hope to have ours looking like this in a few weeks. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Young sweet corn. Hope to have ours looking like this in a few weeks.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

And the corn started to come up 9 days after sowing, with wan little spikes poking up out of the ground. It remains to be seen how good or otherwise the stand is. I was looking at the top (road) end of the plot, where it is driest. I couldn’t even walk far into the plot as the soil was too sodden and I didn’t want to compact the soil. We always stay off wet soil if we start to sink in – compacting the soil just starves the roots of air and leaves the soil less free-draining than before, causing worse flooding problems. Our first sweet corn sowing is always a bit of a risk. In fact we prepare for this by sowing some corn seeds in styrofoam Speedling flats, the same day we sow the first corn planting outdoors. We float these on water in a tank we built from cinder blocks lined with carpet and plastic. (The carpet extends the life of the plastic.). It is possible to transplant sweet corn until it is about 2″ tall. The link takes you to Vern Grubinger at the University of Vermont, in a region where whole fields of corn are transplanted. We only transplant to fill gaps in our first sowing, if we need to.

Our float frame for Speedling flats can be seen behind this cart of lettuce transplants. Photo Pam Dawling
Our float frame for Speedling flats can be seen behind this cart of lettuce transplants.
Photo Pam Dawling

This floating technique comes from the tobacco growing industry. It works well for corn and onions, but it doesn’t work well for many vegetables – most can’t take continuous water and have to be drained some of the time. If early September is very hot, we use this technique for starting spinach seeds in hot weather. We float the Speedling flats in the daytime and pull them out to drain overnight.

Stakes and ropes set out for planting corn. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Stakes and ropes set out for planting corn.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Back to sowing corn. We sow by hand, making furrows below ropes we stretch between stakes at the right row spacing. In normal conditions, we flood the furrow with water from a hose before we plant. This gives the seed enough water to get up out of the ground and saves worrying and saves a lot of time watering the soil after planting. We put new seed at 6″ and last year’s seed at 4″. Later we thin to 8-10″. I think this shows that different people’s idea of 4″ and 6″ vary a lot! After sowing we cover the seed with soil and  tamp it down. We leave the ropes, as we’ve found they keep the crows off the corn seed. 10″ seems about the right height. About two weeks later we will sow our next corn, and at that point we move those stakes and ropes to mark out the new planting.

I wrote a blogpost for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog, about transplanting broccoli (and other things) into hay mulch. You can see the post here.

And in case it’s raining where you are and you want to think about growing food while you can’t actually get out there and do it, here’s a video of the Succession Planting presentation I did at New Country Organics

Potato and tomato yields, VABF Conference, weather extremes.

Potato harvest 2014 croppedPotato harvest October 2014. Credit Nina Gentle.

We got our June-planted potato harvest finished last week, and I counted the crates – 122. That makes 3660 pounds, a pretty good amount for the space we used. The Red Pontiac seem to have done a whole lot better than the Kennebec – the same result we got from our March-planted crop. One thought is that maybe the Kennebec seed pieces were cut too small, although I’d be surprised if the whole crew managed to do the same thing twice.

Potatoes into crates croppedWe use discarded plastic crates for our potatoes. They are lightweight, stack easily and don’t grow mold. We store our crop in our root cellar, which is built into the ground, a kind of constructed cave. Nice, fossil-fuel free and low-tech. And, like natural caves, it is prone to damp. It’s prone to mice too, but we have our organic solution to that problem: a black snake lives in there. We have been known to commandeer a snake, if none has chosen to move in. It’s a good winter home for snakes

Our organic pest mouse  remover. Credit Nina Gentle
Our organic pest mouse control expert.
Credit Nina Gentle

We also tallied our Roma paste tomato harvests for the year. We gathered 313 5-gallon buckets. If we’d had more workers we could have harvested more. Our plan was to harvest the whole patch of 530 plants twice a week, but during the peak of the season we were lucky if we could get one half harvested each time.The plants stayed in good health throughout the season, and the fruit stayed a good size. This is thanks to the selection work I have been doing when we save our seed (Roma Virginia Select). Also thanks to drip irrigation we have reduced water splashing on the leaves, which can spread fungal spores.

Geek Special: See our harvest data here:Roma Harvests

Roma is a determinate variety, meaning the number of trusses (branches) of fruit is genetically predetermined, but as with many crops, the more you pick, the more you get. Leaving mature fruit delays development of immature fruit. I have not found anyone to tell me how many trusses of fruit Roma has, and despite growing 530 plants each year for over 20 years, I have never taken the time to count them. Maybe next year. . .

If you read descriptions of determinate tomato varieties, you would think they are all tiny plants with a three-week harvest window. Roma is a large determinate, at least 4ft tall, and our harvest period lasts from mid-July until frost (usually late October here). Our peak period is about a month (early August to early September). Here’s a general description from www.seedaholic.com: “Determinate varieties are generally smaller and more compact than indeterminate tomatoes. . .”


The Twin Oaks Garden Crew is getting ready to have our annual Crop Review meeting. We work our way down an alphabetical list of crops, noting what worked and what didn’t. And at the same time, we pop our garlic bulbs into separate cloves for planting.

My next speaking engagement is at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference January 30 and 31 2015, with pre-conference sessions on Thursday January 29. Online registration is now open. I’ll be presenting my workshops  on Asian Greens and Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests. Lots of other great workshops too, including from Jean-Martin Fortier. Follow the link to get to my book review of The Market Gardener.

If you looking for a chatty online group of homesteaders, try Earthineer or, of course, the Mother Earth News blogs (I write for the Organic Gardening Blog)

Guess which was our hottest day this year: September 2? July 2? June 18? May 26? I recorded 97F, 98F, 98F and 90F. August didn’t get a look in! June 18 tied with July 2. And our wettest day was April 29, with 3″. Hurricane season didn’t bring us anything to blog about. I’m not complaining!