Saving watermelon seed, rainy day reading, Heritage Harvest Festival

Scooping watermelon seed.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote recently about saving tomato seed, and here I’ll write about extracting watermelon seed. We grow Crimson Sweet Virginia Select, which we sell to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I walk through the patch with a grease pencil (china marker) in July when the melons are forming and write numbers on 40 nice-looking big melons. I’m selecting for earliness, size, disease resistance and flavor.

Selected watermelon with an identifying number.
Photo Nina Gentle

Once the melons start to ripen, I go out to the plot once a week with my trusty garden cart and a collection of clean buckets, a notebook and pen, a big knife, a large slotted spoon, a couple of damp rags, a bottle of water and a big straw hat. I start testing the numbered ones for ripeness. If they are ripe I decide if they are seed-worthy, demoting any with dead vines (not disease-resistant!) or too small. I find promising replacements for any I decide not to save seed from, and number those.

Garden cart with supplies for watermelon seed collection.
Photo Pam Dawling

When I have a good one, I cut it in half and scoop the heart out into a very clean bucket. I taste a piece (that’s the “good flavor” test). These days they all seem to taste good, but the first few years of seed selection, I had some I didn’t like much, so I didn’t save seed from those. See the first photo for the scooping task. Once the heart is scooped out, there is a layer of flesh with seeds in, which I scoop out into a moderately clean bucket. Then a layer of flesh without seeds for the food bucket.

Watermelon seed bucket and food bucket.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the blue bucket is my “dry zone” with my notebook. I write down which melons I harvested, any I discarded, any new ones I added, and how many are left to find in the coming weeks. Generally I harvest 7-10 watermelons per week, generating two buckets of fruit and two half-buckets of seeds. The watermelon seeds are fermented for four or five days, then washed – just like processing tomato seeds I wrote about last week.

Dried watermelon seeds in a paper bag.
Photo Pam Dawling

I harvest 5 or 6 times, from Late July to early September. I don’t want to be selecting for late-ripening melons so I stop harvesting seed long before the fruits are over.


My most recent blog post for Mother Earth News is about repairing garden hoses, most of which you already read about here. It’s in the DIY blog this time (most of my posts go in the Organic Gardening blog). I just heard some numbers for how various of my Mother Earth News blogposts this year are doing, and the big favorite topic is Growing Lettuce Year Round: Succession Planting for a Continuous Supply: 10,924 views! Growing Winter Lettuce: 4,620 views, is second favorite. people sure do love lettuce! Other popular topics this year have been Winter Hoop House Harvest Schedule, Using Open Flats (Seed Trays) to Grow Sturdy Seedlings EasilyHeat-Tolerant Eggplant Varieties, and Planting Leeks. 

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

When I look to see which posts on this blog people visit most often, I see that garlic harvesting and garlic scapes are very popular, as are posts about sweet potatoes.


Sometimes I post links to my slideshows, but here’s a You Tube I’ve been meaning to tell you about. This is my presentation of Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests at New Country Organics.


The September Growing for Market is out. The cover article, by Carolina Lees, advocating a Farmer Retreat. This is a wintertime regional gathering of farmers, with scheduled time for discussion and also for casual hanging-out. No imported speakers! The author is in Oregon, and envy-inducing photos of the beach-side retreat are included. But, what a good idea!

David Ross writes about grower relationships with wholesalers. Shawn Jadrnicek, author of The Bio-Integrated Farm: A Reveolutionary Permaculture-Based System . . .  writes about mulching and crimping techniques for no-till vegetables, including how to have weed-free cover crops, and get the right machinery to roll and crimp them. he uses a manure spreader to spread tree leaf mulch, and shows photos of a very tidy farm.

Rowan Steele writes about obtaining used silage tarps (as advocated by Jean-Martin Fortier) for covering beds to control weeds organically. Rowan writes about how to use the tarps and suggests coordinating a used silage tarp delivery for your small farm community. Contact Travis Quirk at the nonprofit Simply Agriculture Solutions Inc. in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan ([email protected]).  The tarps may be delivered for the cost of shipping. Canadian farmers are required to recycle their “grain bags”, but it’s hard for them to find a recycling facility in Canada, so the plastics are sent to the US. They are happy to be able to divert the material for a second use. Sounds great to me!

Jane Tanner writes about William’s WIldflowers, a floral design business run by two sisters, using lots of native flowers, especially perennials, for weddings and other formal occasions.


See you at the Heritage Harvest Festival on Friday September 8 (my premium workshop on growing sweet potatoes from start to finish) or Saturday (strolling around). Last time I looked there were still tickets available for my workshop ($20)

Heritage Harvest Festival

Asian Greens for July: Maruba Santoh, plus sowings for fall

Young Maruba Santoh plants
Photo by Ethan Hirsh

In June I told you about Tokyo Bekana, a light green tender-leaved, white-stemmed green which can be cooked, or used as a substitute for lettuce in hot weather. Because summer in Virginia is a hard time for leafy greens, July’s Asian green is very similar – Maruba Santoh. Maruba Santoh has smoother, wavy, less ruffled leaves than Tokyo Bekana.

To show you I’m not being a slouch, I’ll include some pointers on sowing Asian greens for fall, because now is the time – in our climate at least. Here’s what one of my favorite seed suppliers, Fedco Seeds has to say:

Maruba Santoh (35 days) Brassica rapa (pekinensis group) Open pollinated. With Maruba you get four vegetables in one. The loose round vibrant chartreuse leaves provide a mild piquant mustardy flavor while the flat white stems impart a juicy crisp pac choy taste. High-end chefs like to use the blossoms. Market grower Scott Howell finds the flavor more subtle and complex than that of other greens and cuts Maruba small for his mesclun. Fairly bolt tolerant, so plant after the early spring flea beetle invasion subsides.

Fedco is in Maine and we’re in Virginia, so things are a little different. The information on their website about pests and diseases is good. Our worst brassica pests are harlequin bugs.

We grow our summer brassica seedlings and transplanted Asian greens under ProtekNet on hoops. On the Dubois link, study the Dimensions and Specifications tab, then download the brochure from that tab. Study the Descriptions tab – it tells you which insects are excluded by each size mesh. Be sure that you choose the right size mesh for the bugs you want to exclude. Flea beetles and thrips are small – you need a small mesh. Johnny’s is now marketing the close-mesh ProtekNet as  “Biothrips” insect netting, and they also have a comparison chart of rowcover and insect netting on their site.

Adolescent Maruba Santoh plants bunched for market.
Photo Kitazawa Seeds

Kitazawa Seeds also sells Maruba Santoh seed, under the Chinese Cabbage heading. Like most brassicas, Maruba Santoh does best in cool weather, although it is somewhat heat tolerant (or “warm tolerant” as we call it in Virginia.) It tolerates heat better than Napa Chinese cabbage does. To avoid bolting, keep the plants above 50F (10C) at all times, but particularly avoid prolonged spells below this “bolting trigger” temperature.

Maruba Santoh will germinate at temperatures between 50-85F. Seedlings emerge in just 3 days in summer. For summer use, direct sow, thin the rows for baby salad mix, then let the “heads” (it doesn’t actually head up) develop to full size (6-10″ tall) after about 35-40 days. Or transplant two week old starts. We tend to grow our plants quite big (12″ tall) and harvest by the leaf, several times over. Maruba Santoh makes a fine substitute for lettuce, and a tasty quick-cooking green.

To calculate sowing dates, work back 40 days from when you want to harvest, and sow more every week or two until you run into the fall slowdown temperatures, or you go back to eating lettuce in salads and cooking chard and kale. If you still have Maruba Santoh growing in the fall, know that it will be frost tolerant to 25°F (-4°C). No hurry.

Newly transplanted Maruba Santoh.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Maruba Santoh can also be grown at other times of year: spring and fall outdoors, winter in the hoophouse. The seedlings have large cotyledons and make good microgreens too.

Kitazawa’s  Culinary Tips include: Use in salad, sukiyaki, ohitashi, yosenabe, stir-fry, soup and pickling. Kim chi here we come! (If we had surplus.)


Next month I will talk more about Asian greens outdoors in fall. Now is the time to sow for fall harvests. We start in late June, and sow more in early July. We always make two sowings a week apart, for insurance.  We are aiming for greens to feed us in early fall, before the kale is ready, and into the winter, harvesting by the leaf. But Asian greens can be sown all the way up to two months before your first fall frost date. For us, that means August 14-20.  If you want to make sowings now, consider senposai, komatsuna, pak choy, tat soi, Yukina Savoy, and Chinese cabbage.


An insectary circle with borage and sunflower in a chard bed.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I have two posts on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog that I haven’t told you about yet. So if it’s too hot out, or it’s raining (don’t make me envious) seek shade and read more. The newer post is Insectaries: Grow Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects, and the previous one is Planting Leeks. 

Planting leeks, Growing for Market melon article, different weather

Planting leeks has been one of our main jobs this week. Two beds finished, three to go. When I wrote about this last year, I said we were trying leek seedlings in flats (rather than bare-root from an outdoor seedbed) for the second year, and doing the transplanting 2-3 weeks earlier than with our outdoor seedbed method, from the same sowing dates.

Leek planting diagram. Pam Dawling

Leek planting diagram.
Pam Dawling

This year we again used flats, and I think this will be the way of the future for us. It is easier to keep weeds at bay in flats than outdoors. We’ve cut back from 20 flats to 15, for the same number of beds, and still have plenty of plants. Next year, perhaps a further cut.

But I’m a bit unhappy with the root damage that occurs in getting the close-planted seedlings out of the flats. I know some growers trim leek roots before planting, but we never have. Extricating them from flats does produce a root-pruning of a sort. Last year’s leeks grew well, so I think I can ease back on worrying! Some growers use plug flats, but I can’t imagine having enough coldframe space for 5 beds x 4 rows x 90ft x 2 (6″ spacing) seedlings. 3600 plugs. Plus up to 10% spare to allow for non-germinating seeds, and for selecting the strongest.

A bed of overwintered leeks Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

A bed of overwintered leeks
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

In 2013, I wrote about calculating the seed-row length for outdoor seed beds, and about using flats for the first time. We sowed 20 flats 12″ x 24″ with 6 rows in each. We found we had more plants than we needed, and we didn’t need the back-up sowing in April at all. We were still transplanting on June 20 that year.

In 2012, I introduced our furrow and dibbled holes system for leeks. I notice I said we were growing five varieties: fast-growing Lincoln and King Richard for eating in October and November, King Sieg for December, and the hardy Tadorna for December to February. I count that as four, not five, so I wonder about the fifth. We were still transplanting leeks on June 28, because the March 21 sowing got over-run by weeds, and we used our back-up April 20 sowing.


 

GFM_JuneJuly2015_cover_300px

The June/July issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about growing muskmelons aka cantaloupes. I was surprised to find I had never written about growing melons for Growing for market previously. There’s a chapter in my book, of course. Melons are one of my favorite fruits, and I enjoy even looking forward to them! I wrote about the different types of melons and why the ones we call cantaloupes are actually muskmelons; how to start the seeds; transplanting and direct sowing; keeping the bugs off and harvesting. There are also lists of pests diseases you hope not to get, and some handy resources.

I wrote a complementary post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog about personal size melons, something we are trying again this year.

Kansas Melon. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Kansas Melon.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In this issue, you can also read the cover story by Emily Oakley and Mike Appel of Three Springs Farm in eastern Oklahoma, about having small children while farming. Worth learning from others’ experience before launching into that project! Periodical cicadas are the subject of Lynn Byczynski‘s editorial. They were here on our farm in 2013.

Regina Dlugokencky of Seedsower Farm in Centerport, New York writes about a new organic farming opportunity: the supply of organic mulching materials from the current proliferation of microbreweries. She has had success using Spent Brewers Grains (SBG) on Long Island. One micro-brewer can produce 220 pounds of SBG per working day. Read the complete report at www.sare.org – search for Project Number FNE12-743.

There’s also an article about two electronic record-keeping systems you can use on your smart phone, if you have one. COG Pro (use the word Guest as username and password) and FARMDATA. Next up is an article about a small flower farm in County Cork, Ireland. Gretel Adams closes with an article about flower photography to increase sales.


Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting. Credit Kati Folger

Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting.
Credit Kati Folger

And lastly, the weather. After days without rain, with forecasts including “chance of thunderstorms” that went everywhere but here, we finally are getting some rain. Hoeing is out, transplanting is in, as is setting seed potatoes to sprout for our second planting, in a couple of weeks.

For weather-entertainment from the safety of your own desk, check out LightningMaps.org. Real time lightning. Of course, if the lightning is close, you might  close down your computer and not get zapped.

 

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Planting leeks, eating cicadas

Yes, we’re still planting leeks! Later than we intended, but the soil is nice and moist, thanks to the recent 1.6″ of rain. We’re growing 180′ each of King Richard and Lincoln, fast-growing fall leeks, 360′ of King Sieg and 1080′ of the wonderful winter-hardy Tadorna. We’ve just got about 400′ of Tadorna left to plant. Maybe tomorrow we’ll get finished.

Leek Seedlings earlier in spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Leek seedlings in spring 2012, our usual method.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Usually we grow our leek seedlings outdoors in a nursery bed. We reckoned to sow 24′ each of the fall leeks, 48′ of King Sieg and 144′ of Tadorna on 3/21, and repeat this on 4/27 as a back-up. March had so much rain we couldn’t sow outdoors, so we used open wood flats, sowing the rows close together. Our flats are 12″ by 24″. To get the same number of plants, we sowed 6 rows across and needed a total of 20 flats. Quite space-consuming! The greenhouse couldn’t contain them along with all the other starts we have at that time of year, so we put the freshly sowed flats directly in the cold frames. Our logic was that the coldframe would be at least as warm as the conditions they would have had in the nursery bed. This worked well. There was coldframe congestion, which would have been even harder if we hadn’t been losing so many flats of broccoli to various beasts!

Leek seedlings. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Leek seedlings.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

On 4/27 we were able to make the second sowing in the outdoor nursery bed. The strange part of the tale is that we don’t seem to need them! Using flats has given us a much better survival rate than the nursery bed used to (sometimes it’s a challenge dealing with the weeds that pop up and outgrow the slow leeks.) We even seem to have had too many plants in the twenty flats. I’m strongly considering switching over to deliberate use of flats next year. I think we could even sow fewer flats (reducing the coldframe congestion). A disaster has produced a better method! Our, our creativity when faced with a disaster has produced a better method.

With our “new” method, we still put the seedlings in small buckets of water to make the roots stick together for easier planting.

Here’s my description from Sustainable Market Farming (c) Pam Dawling and New Society Publishers:

The ideal size for transplanting is between a pencil lead and a pencil in thickness. We plant at 6″ (15 cm) spacing, with four rows to a 48″ (1.2 m) bed. People wanting really huge leeks use wider spacings. Leeks can also be planted in clumps of four to six, either at 10–12″ (25–30 cm) in-row spacing for easier hoeing or at 6″ (15 cm) for smaller bunching leeks. We use a special planting technique for our bare root transplants, in order to develop long white shanks, which are prized more than the equally edible green parts. A similar technique can be used for seedlings from flats or plugs. We find it efficient to divide the crew up and specialize in one part of the job.

Chapter 52, Leek diagram

First, if the soil is dry, water it well, preferably more than an hour ahead. Then one person makes parallel V-shaped furrows, 3″ (8 cm) deep, along the bed. Next, a couple of people make holes 6″ (15 cm) apart in the furrows. Tools for this job include hoe handles, purpose-bought “dibbles” or dibblers, or ones homemade from broken digging fork handles, with the end sharpened to a point. The tool needs to have a diameter of 1½–2″ (4–5 cm). The depth of the holes is determined by the height of the transplants, and is likely to need to be 3″ (8 cm) or more. If the holes cave in, you need to water the soil more before proceeding. Meanwhile another person digs up some of the transplants from the nursery bed and transfers them to a small bucket containing an inch or so of water. We make useful little buckets from one-gallon (four-liter) plastic jugs with the top cut off. A rope handle knotted into holes at the top of the new bucket makes it easy to carry. Resist any temptation to trim either the roots or the tops of the leeks.

To transplant, take a leek, shake it free from its neighbors and decide whether to plant it. Discard the ones thinner than pencil leads. If the plant is a good size and looks healthy, twirl it as you lower it into the hole to prevent the roots folding back on the plant and pointing at the sky — they need to grow downwards. This works best if the roots are still wet and muddy from the water bucket. Bobbing the plant up and down as you settle it in the hole will help a transplant that has slightly bunched roots. If at first you don’t succeed, remove the plant from the hole, dip it back in the water and try again. Soon you will develop this quirky planting skill, and will be able to move along the row at a good clip. Ideally the tops of the leaves will poke out of the furrow, not more.Get the depth of the hole-making adjusted to suit the prevailing plant height. This creates the depth for growing a long white shank. Surprising as it may sound, it is not necessary or desirable to fill the holes with soil (you don’t want to bury the seedlings). The soil fills in naturally as the plants become tall enough to survive the depth.

Next someone gently waters each hole, either from a low-pressure hose, watering can or using an overhead sprinkler, once everyone else is out of range. The goal is to water the plant roots, adding only a little soil to each hole. The shelter of the hole helps the plant get over the transplant shock, and because leeks have slender tough leaves, they do not lose a lot of water by transpiration. This means that transplanting in quite hot weather is possible, as is transplanting in the mornings.

Onto a completely different subject: the 17-year cicadas. I heard a radio interview and read an article in a local paper, The Hook, about Jackson Landers the Charlottesville author of Eating Aliens, with whom I shared the platform at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March. He spoke about eating the cicadas (not his usual quarry, because these are native insects, not aliens). He’s also on YouTube. He inspired me to try one (given that we only get the chance once every 17 years). I ate it straight up, after rinsing. I chose one that looked recently dead. It wasn’t unpleasant – a mild flavor and a creamy texture. I did wish I’d removed the wings and legs first. I spat out the fibrous bits, but it was no worse than an over-mature snap peas pod. The adult cicadas are dying off now, and the decibel level has dropped.