Potato Research, Mother Earth News Fair PA and Heritage Harvest Festival

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle

Potato Research on Harvest and Storage

Last week I mentioned that while researching potato yield figures, I found an interesting publication, The Potato Association of America, Commercial Potato Production in North America 2010. I’ve been reading that and learning more about potatoes. Here I’m going to focus on harvest and storage, because that’s the bit we’re currently challenged by. I also learned more about planting in hot weather, but that’s for another time.

Potato harvest.
Photo Nina Gentle

In England we planted in spring and harvested in October, waiting for the frost to kill the vines. In Virginia we plant in March and June, harvesting in July and October. We have grown Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold and Kennebec here, mostly. They all seem to be determinate varieties. I only just learned there are determinate (varieties with naturally self-limiting growth, generally “early” varieties) and indeterminate varieties (such as “Russet Nugget,” “Nicola,” “German Butterball” and “Elba”). The distinction is explained in Potato Bag Gardening. Growers using towers, grow bags, and cage systems want indeterminate potatoes, which continue to produce more layers of tubers on the stems as they are progressively covered with more soil. Growers wanting a fast reliable crop in the field mostly choose determinate types, which grow as a bush, then flower and die. The Wild Woolly Web does seem to have some contradictory statements about which varieties are determinate and which indeterminate, and some dedicated container growers make assertions not supported by experienced commercial growers. So Reader Beware! I trust Extension and here’s a link to their Ask an Expert page on potato types, and the University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Info Center Potatoes.

June-planted potatoes in early September
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Whether the vines die naturally at the end of their lifespan, or they die of disease, or the frost kills them, or you kill them yourself by mowing or flaming, the potatoes will store better if you then wait 2-3 weeks before harvesting. The potato skins thicken up (becoming more resistant to scrapes and bruises) and the potatoes become higher in dry matter. Harvesting is easier if the vines are well dead. We generally bush-hog ours. Decades ago, in England, we had late blight in the middle of the season, and we cut the tops off and made a very smoky bonfire. (I wouldn’t participate in that much air pollution nowadays!) After waiting for a couple of weeks for the late blight spores to die, we dug the potatoes. The idea was to prevent spores getting on the tubers. As I remember, it all worked out OK.

If at all possible, harvest when the soil moisture is 60-80% of field capacity. Not too dry, not too wet. This reduces damage from scraping. If using a digger, don’t set it digging too deep, or too much soil will be damped on the harvested potatoes.

Tuber temperature will also impact bruise and rot susceptibility. Ideally soil temperature will be 45-65F (7-18C).  Because soil temperature lags 3-4 hours behind air temperature rise each day, in cold weather, try to harvest around 6 pm or a bit later. In hot weather, harvest in the morning.

When freshly harvested, potatoes are tender, breathing things. Avoid bruising, which is damage that does not break the skin, by not dropping potatoes more than 6” (15 cm), or throwing them towards a container. Don’t bang them to knock off extra soil.

When harvesting in summer, we stack the crates of potatoes under a big tree overnight to lose some of the field heat before moving them to the root cellar early next morning. Potatoes you take from storage can be no better than the quality of the potatoes you put into storage!

The first part of the storage period is the curing. The potatoes are still actively respiring, so they need a good oxygen supply. Failure to ventilate the cellar enough can lead to Black-heart, where the inner tissue of the potatoes dies and turns black. During the curing period, the skins further toughen up, and cut surfaces and superficial wounds heal over, enabling long term storage. The temperature should be as close to 50-58F (10-14.4C) as you can get. The lower end of the range is best for fresh eating (as opposed to junk food manufacture). Hotter temperatures will promote more rot, and age the potatoes faster, leading to early sprouting. Relative humidity should be 90%, but not 100%! If there is too much condensation, use a fan and open the cellar doors, when temperatures are closest to the goal. Curing takes 10-14 days.

Sorting potatoes .
Photo Wren Vile

We find that a single thorough sorting after 14 days can remove almost all of the storage problems that are going to happen. Not sorting at this point lets rots spread.

After the curing period, the potatoes become more dormant and do not respire so actively. They don’t need as many air changes as during curing, but if the cellar is too warm, you will need to aerate more. The temperature during the storage period should be 40-50F (4.4-10C), and closer to the lower end of the range is best. Constant temperatures or a steady decline is the goal, not dramatic fluctuations. Humidity should still be 90-95%, to keep weight loss to a minimum.

Potatoes have a natural dormancy of 60-130 days (depending on the storage temperature). After that period, they will start to sprout. Some plant extracts, including clove oil, can add 20-30 days storage, and will then need to be reapplied. I do not know anything about this myself, and do wonder how you remove the clove flavor from the potatoes!

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Speaking Events

I have two speaking events coming up in September
Mother Earth News Fair

2019 Mother Earth News Fair Pennsylvania.

September Friday 13- Sunday 15, 2019
Location: Seven Springs Mountain Resort, 777 Waterwheel Dr., Seven Springs, Pa. 15622

I am giving two 60 min workshops

Hoophouse winter lettuce: Green Forest, and Red Salad Bowl, two of our fifteen varieties.
Photo Wren Vile

Lettuce Year-Round on Friday 9/13 12.30-1.30 pm at the Grit Stage

This presentation includes techniques to extend the lettuce season using row covers, cold frames, and hoop houses to provide lettuce harvests in every month of the year. The workshop includes a look at varieties for spring, summer, fall, and winter. Pam Dawling considers the pros and cons of head lettuce, leaf lettuce, baby lettuce mix, and the newer multileaf types. She also provides information on scheduling and growing conditions, including how to persuade lettuce to germinate when it’s too hot.

Cool Season Hoophouse Crops on Saturday 9/14 3.30-4.30 pm at the Building and Energy Stage

Learn how to fill your hoop house with productive food crops in the cool seasons. Pam Dawling discusses suitable crops, cold-hardiness, selecting crops, calculating how much to harvest and how much to plant, crop rotation, mapping, scheduling, seasonal transitions, succession planting, interplanting, and follow-on cropping.

Book-signing at the Bookstore Saturday 4.30-5 pm. Buy new books at the Bookstore and bring your grubby used copies to be signed too!

Demos at New Society Publishers booth, of tomato string-weaving and wigglewire system for fastening hoophouse plastic to framework
Friday 3 -3.30 pm, 4.30-5 pm; Saturday 10-11 am, 1.30-2.30 pm; Sunday 9-10 am. 1-2 pm, 3.30-4 pm

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Heritage Harvest Festival, Monticello, Charlottesville, VA

September Friday and Saturday 21-22, 2019
Buy tickets online
Workshop with Ira Wallace
10:30 – 11:30 am Saturday in the Heritage Tent

Winter Gardening: No Tech to High Tech 

Learn tips on growing cold-hardy vegetables (not only kale!) out in the open and with varying degrees of protection from rowcovers, low tunnels, coldframes and hoophouses (high tunnels). We’ll consider crop choices, planting dates and harvesting so there’s always something to eat for everyone from winter market gardeners to small backyard growers. We’ll explain ways to maximize production with succession planting and follow-on cropping.

 No extra fee for the workshop, included with the price of general admission

Booksigning: SATURDAY, SEPT. 21st, 11:45am – 12:15pm, MONTICELLO SHOP TENT (WEST LAWN). Buy new books at the Bookstore and bring your grubby used copies to be signed too!

December view in our hoophouse, showing lettuce mix and turnips.
Photo Wren Vile

Sweet corn, potatoes and okra

Our first sweet corn of the season (Bodacious).
Photo Pam Dawling

Sweet Corn

We sowed our first sweet corn on 4/18, eight days earlier than usual this year, because we had auspicious weather. We look at the leaves of the white oaks to decide when it is warm enough for corn planting. The oak leaves should be as big as squirrel’s ears. Phenology signs like this are especially useful when the weather is extremely variable, which we are getting more of as climate disruption has got us in its grip.

Our first sweet corn sowing is always a bit of a risk. In fact we often prepare for this by sowing some corn seeds in styrofoam Speedling flats, the same day we sow the first corn planting outdoors. Read more about this seedling technique and transplanting corn.

Our third planting of sweet corn on the left, fourth in the middle, 5th (barely emerging) on the right.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’ve been harvesting sweet corn since July 2, which is two days earlier than our target start date, so we’re very happy. Initially, of course, we got smaller amounts, but we are now harvesting three times a week and getting good amounts. We are back up to 6 sowings this year, after we had to cut back for a couple of years. For a hundred people we sow an average of 1100 ft (335m) each time we plant, with each planting intended to last us 15 days (7 or 8 pickings). Our goal is sweet corn from July 4 to mid-October (our average first frost is October 20, a 13 year average from our own records).

Three varieties of sweet corn in one planting. On the left Bodacious; in the middle, red-flowered Kandy Korn; on the right, Silver Queen not yet fully grown.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Each sowing includes several varieties (with different numbers of days to maturity) on the same day, so a planting will give us at least two weeks of delicious corn. In this photo from a previous year, you can see (from left to right): later-maturing Silver Queen, not yet at full height; red-flowered Kandy Korn; fast-maturing shorter Bodacious. Each plant is only going to provide two or three ears, so to have enough, and to have a continuous supply, it is necessary to plan ahead. See the Succession Planting section ahead.

Sowing sweet corn

We have switched to sowing corn with the EarthWay seeder, with a homemade next-row marker. This is much quicker than sowing by hand, but does rely on providing overhead irrigation consistently until the seedlings emerge. Another trade-off is that we get more weeds germinating in the (watered) aisles than we did when we only watered the furrows at planting time. Drip irrigation would be another approach.  So far we have not lost corn to crows, which was the reason we took to the handsowing-under-ropes method some 20 years ago. Back then we also sowed our fist corn with a tractor seeder, but we had to follow that with putting up ropes, or we lost it all to birds. Details of our hand-sowing method are in this post from May 2016.

Staying on top of weeds in the sweet corn

Once we get to late June, more of our time in the garden is taken up by harvesting (a sign of success), leaving less time for weeding. We have a system I like that helps us stay on top of sweet corn weeds. Each time we sow sweet corn, we hoe the previous planting (about two weeks old), thin the plants to one every 8″-12″ (20-30cm) in the row, and wheel hoe or till between the rows. We have two Valley Oak wheel hoes that we really like. The handle height is adjustable and they are available with different width hoes (and other attachments). Our tiller is a BCS 732 from Earth Tools BCS

Don’t let this happen to you! Weedy young corn.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We also hoe the rows of the corn planting before that one (about 4 weeks old), and till between those rows and broadcast soybeans (which we till in lightly). Soybeans will grow in partial shade, handle the foot traffic of harvesting, and provide some nitrogen for the soil. For the last corn of the season, we undersow with a mix of soy and oats. After the harvest ends, we leave the patch alone, and the oats survive the first frosts (which kill the corn and the soy) and go on to be our winter cover crop for that plot. When it gets cold enough, the oats do die, and the plot becomes an easy one to bush hog and disk in the early spring for our March-planted potato crop. I like that opportunity to eliminate one round of disking, and to get a winter-killed cover crop established

As we harvest corn we pull out any pigweed that has somehow survived our earlier efforts. I learned at a Sustainable Weed Management workshop, that pigweed puts out its seeds in one big bang at the end, so pulling up huge pigweed is worthwhile, if it hasn’t yet seeded. (Actually you can see it for yourself, but before the workshop I hadn’t noticed!) Our soil has improved over the years, so it is now possible to uproot 5ft (1.5 m) pigweeds. Sometimes we have to hold the corn plant down with our feet, but we do almost always succeed in getting the weeds out, without damaging the corn.

Succession Planting for Sweet Corn

In Sustainable Market Farming I have a chapter on succession planting, and my slideshow on Succession Planting is one of my most popular ones. You can watch it right here.

I posted on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer. You can read it here:

Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer – Organic Gardening

Our sweet corn sowing dates and harvests from those plantings are

  1. 4/26, harvest 7/9 (with a few ears from 7/4)
  2. 5/19, harvest 7/24
  3. 6/6, harvest 8/8
  4. 6/24, harvest 8/23
  5. 7/7, harvest 9/7
  6. 7/16, harvest 9/22

Avoid mixing types of corn.

There’s a confusing aspect of hybrid corn varieties: There are several genotypes, and if you inadvertently plant a mixture of different types, it can lead to starchy unpleasant-flavored corn. Also don’t plant Indian corn, popcorn or any kind of flint or dent corn within 600′ (180 m) of your sweet corn. For this reason we grow only sweet corn in our garden. Ignore those cryptic catalog notes at your peril!

Dealing with raccoons, skunks and curious cats in the corn

We have trapped (and then killed) raccoons in our corn most years, and the past few years we’ve tried deterring them with nightly radio broadcasts. We have the large live mammal traps, and we found for raccoons, we needed to stake the trap down to the ground. I followed suggestions from Joanna Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm, staking the traps down and smearing peanut butter high on the stake in the back of the cage. Well, the first morning I caught a small, very white skunk! I let it out carefully. The next morning I caught the same skunk again. And the third morning, again. You can read more about how I let the skunks out. I’ve also caught some of our cats by accident.

Raccoons don’t seem to like Silver Queen as much as Kandy Korn, maybe because the husks are tighter and harder to rip off. Actually I like Kandy Korn better than Silver Queen too.

Okra

Cow Horn okra flower and pod.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have started harvesting our okra. It’s a little later than it might have been because we had to replant. The first planting had leggy seedlings due to not enough light soon enough in their lives. Then we planted it out with novice helpers, and they didn’t plant them deep enough. The feeble stems couldn’t take it. We made an attempt to hill them up to give more protection to the stems. Another mistake we made was over-watering. When we pulled up some of the dead plants for our postmortem, they reminded me of retted flax stems – the fibers were still there, with the soft tissue rotted away. This is why I think the problem is that we over watered rather than under-watered.

This year we are trying Carmine Splendor, a red okra from Johnny’s, as well as our usual favorite Cow Horn from Southern Exposure.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We like Cow Horn for its tall plants, high productivity and the fact that the pods can get relatively large without getting fibrous. They are still tender at 5-6″, which is the size we used to harvest at. 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 do find it very hard to convince our cooks that we have specially chosen this “commune-friendly” variety so they don’t have to deal with fiddly little okra pods when cooking for 100. We’ve had to compromise and harvest at 4″. Hence the venturing-out to another variety, accepting people are hard to convince about Cow Horn!

We grow a 90′ row, with plants about 18″ apart in the row. This is enough for the hundred of us (some people never eat okra despite the cooks’ best efforts!)

Carmine Splendot okra plant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Carmine Splendor is a 51 day (from transplanting) F1 hybrid, with sturdy 5-sided pods that are deep red when small. I haven’t tasted them yet.

Potatoes

June-planted potatoes emerging from mulch in mid-July.
photo Pam Dawling

Our June-planted potatoes are starting to come up through the hay mulch, and we need to walk through and free the trapped shoots. This means we walk through investigating the spots where we expect there to be a potato plant but we don’t see one. If we find a trapped shoot, we open up the mulch to let the plant see the light. We do this same job with garlic in late November or early December.

This week we are harvesting our March planted potatoes. I just dug 30lbs for tonight’s dinner. Yes, lots of diners! The rest of the crop will be harvested using a digging machine on Thursday.

We harvested our March-planted potatoes 21 days ago, and we are in the process of sorting them and managing conditions in our root cellar to cure the potatoes and help them store well.

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle
Click here for our Root Cellar Warden” instructions from last year.

Dormancy Requirements of Potatoes

We are researching the dormancy requirements of potatoes in an effort to store ours so they don’t sprout when we don’t want them to!

What I know so far about dormancy is that potatoes need a dormancy period of 4-8 weeks after harvest before they will sprout. So if you plan to dig up an early crop and immediately replant some of the potatoes for a later crop, take this into account. Get around this problem by refrigerating them for 16 days, then chitting them in the light for 2 weeks. The company of apples, bananas or onions will help them sprout by emitting ethylene.

To avoid sprouting, keep the potatoes below 50F (10C) once they are more than a month from harvest, avoid excess moisture, and avoid “physiological aging” of the potatoes, caused by stressing them with fluctuating temperatures, among other things.

Tobacco Hornworm pupa

Just had to add this, which I dug up yesterday. These brutes are about 2″ (5 cm) long. They are heavy and they move slightly. Also, check out the comments on the last post and be sure to see SESE’s Ken Bezilla’s Instagram of a hornworm in black light.

This is the pupa of the tobacco hornworm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Getting ready for frost, harvesting sweet potatoes

Sweet potato harvest. Photo Nina Gentle
Sweet potato harvest.
Photo Nina Gentle

Our average first frost date is October 14. Actually from our own records it has averaged 10/22 over the last 11 years. So any time now, we could get a frost. We had a very light patchy frost 10/10 with a recorded overnight low of 36F, but now we are having a warm spell (very nice). It’s good to be prepared. We harvested our sweet potatoes (not a good yield, too many deer). We are getting ready to harvest our white potatoes.

DIY weather-forecasting

I recommend learning the local weather patterns by keeping records and watching what happens. Here’s what I’ve learned about ours:

  • Our mid-Atlantic climate is controlled by three weather systems,
    • mainly by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico,
    • the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer,
    • recurrent waves of cold Canadian air in winter.
  • Rain (fairly evenly distributed throughout the year in our county)
    • has slight peaks in January, February and March
    • and again in early June and August.
  • Some parts of our area can experience long periods of drought.
    • September-November is the drier season but it’s also the hurricane season, so the net result is very variable.
  • We use Wunderground.com but subtract 5F° from their forecast night lows for our nearest town, and mentally downgrade the chance of rain by 10%, as rain often passes us by as it scoots along the river valley north of us.

Local Information

According to  a Freeze / Frost Occurrence Data pdf for Virginia which I have, in Louisa County the threshold of 36F has a 50% likelihood on Oct 3; the 32 F threshold has a 50% likelihood by Oct 13 and the 28F threshold is as likely as unlikely by Oct 27. The 90% chances occur by Oct 14, Oct 28 and Nov 13 respectively. The data for spring are available here. probably the site has the fall info too, but I’m out of time to look, due to three hours without internet this afternoon.

Frosty daikon leaves. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Frosty daikon leaves.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Help predicting frost

We keep this reminder list handy at this time of year, when trying to make our own frost forecasts:

Frost is more likely at Twin Oaks if:

  • The date is after 10/14 or before 4/30.
  • The daytime high temperature was less than 70°F (21°C).
  • The sky is clear.
  • The temperature at sunset is less than 50°F (10°C).
  • The dew point forecast is low, close to freezing. Frost is unlikely if the dew point is 43°F or more.
  • The Wunderground 3.30pm forecast low for Louisa Northside is 37°F (3°C) or less.
  • The soil is dry and cool.
  • The moon is full or new.
  • There is little or no breeze, although if temperatures are falling fast, the wind is from NW and the sky is clear, then polar air may be moving in, and we’ll get a hard freeze.

We also make for ourselves a Frost Alert Card, so we can quickly know which beds we need to attend to if we decide a frost is likely. (RBs means raised beds)

Task Crop Notes
Harvest all edible Asparagus beans
Harvest all edible Eggplant
Harvest all edible Okra
Harvest all edible Tomatoes Incl green
Harvest all edible Peppers exposed to the sky
Harvest all edible West Indian gherkins
Harvest all edible Pickling cucumbers
Harvest all edible Corn
Harvest all edible Beans #4, 5 Uncover once mild again
Thick row cover Beans #5,6 Ditto
Thick row cover Squash Spring hoops or none. Ditto
Thick row cover Slicing Cucumbers Spring hoops or none. Ditto
Thick row cover Celery
Thick row cover Last Lettuce bed Double hoops – leave covered
Set sprinklers Slicer tomatoes Overnight from before 32F till after sun shines on plants
Set sprinklers Romas and peppers Ditto
Set sprinklers Other vulnerable RBs Ditto

FrostProtectionFundamentalsPracticeandEconomicsFAO.pdf

is a 126 page book which includes explanations of freezes and frosts (both radiation frosts and advection frosts), and a chapter on recommended methods of frost protection for food crops. probably none of us will need the information on wind machines and helicopters (maybe little drones work for small scale growers?). The publication includes frost forecasting and frost damage physiology (for growers not in a panic about immediate frosts, who want to understand what the plants are going through).

Potato harvest November 2015 Photo Lori Katz
Potato harvest November 2015
Photo Lori Katz

Mother Earth News Fair, Local Food Hub, other events

10646717_696746683734934_2365867868579925687_nI got home last night from a wonderful Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs Pennsylvania. I heard it was a record-breaker in attendance. It’ll probably be a week before we know for sure. I gave two of my traditional favorite workshops, Succession Planting for Continuous Vegetable Harvests and Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production. They are on SlideShare, with most of my other sustainable farming slide shows, and I’m inserting them here for new readers.We ran out of handouts at the Succession Planting workshop, but the MENF staff made more, so I hope everyone who wanted one got one.


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On Thursday 9/29 I will be offering a new two hour workshop on Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers with the Local Food Hub. 4-6 pm in Room 246,  Albemarle County Office Building, 401 McIntire Road, Charlottesville, VA. COST: $10; free for Local Food Hub partner farms. Still some seats available, as of Tuesday morning. QUESTIONS? Email Adrianna Vargo, Director of Grower Services, at [email protected].

Crimson clover cover crop Photo by Bridget Aleshire
Crimson clover cover crop
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

imagesOn Saturday 10/1 I will be at Lynchburg College, 1501 Lakeside Dr, Lynchburg, VA 24501 (SW Virginia) with Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, co-presenting The Seed Garden: Planning for Seed Saving and Lots of Vegetables. That’s 10.00 am to 12.30 pm. My contribution will be to talk about including a few seed crops while mainly focusing on producing vegetables. We’ll have show and tell as well as slides.


I have started an Events Page here on my website, but while I keep running from one event to another, I’m not spending the time to make it pretty. Hopefully next week. For those in Vermont – you will be getting your own Vermont Mother Earth News Fair in July 2017, and I hope to see you there!


 

Below is info on an interesting symposium for those doing urban agriculture.

Urban Agriculture Symposium

VIRGINIA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION, ARLINGTON COUNTY OFFICE

Fairlington Community Center, 3308 S. Stafford St., Arlington VA 22206

Telephone 703-228-6400

Contact:  Kirsten Buhls, Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent [email protected]

The 2016 VCE Urban Agriculture Symposium will be held on Saturday, Oct. 1, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Fairlington Community Center, 3308 S. Stafford St., Arlington 22206. The symposium is being held in conjunction with Urban Agriculture Month in Virginia and is sponsored by VCE and Greenstreet Garden Center in partnership with Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia.

The keynote speaker will be Carlin Rafie, assistant professor at Virginia Tech and VCE adult nutrition specialist, who will discuss the relationship between nutrition and health.  In breakout sessions, Virginia Tech researchers and other experts will focus on perennial and tree crops for the urban gardener; research on growing food with biosolids; growing nutritious, low-maintenance vegetables; small-space gardening of the future; aeroponic containerized farming; teaching the next generation of gardeners; and growing microgreens and sprouts at home for winter nutrition.

Registration is open to all. The fee is $25 and covers the cost of supplies as well as refreshments and lunch for participants. More information and a registration form are available at mgnv.org; click on the link http://bit.ly/VCEUrbanAgSymposium.

Questions? Call 703-228-6414 or email [email protected].


Meanwhile in the garden, we have got lovely little kale and bigger spinach seedlings, and we are thinking about potato and sweet potato harvests in a couple of weeks.

Sweet potato harvest with carts. Usually we use a truck! Photo Nina Gentle
Sweet potato harvest with carts. Usually we use a truck! Photo Nina Gentle

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!

 

Home from Mother Earth News Fair; Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables Slideshow; potato harvest

Lynn, Pam, Jean-Martin MEN Oct 14Here’s a photo from the Mother Earth News Fair at Topeka, Kansas. I’m at the Friday barbecue dinner at Bryan Welch’s farm, Rancho Cappuccino. Bryan is the publisher of Mother Earth News. I’m sitting with Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market magazine, and Jean-Martin Fortier, author of The Market Gardener.  I reviewed his wonderful book here. Despite writing for Growing for Market magazine for many years, this was the first time Lynn Byczynski and I had met. We had a couple of near-misses at conferences that one of us was at, but not the other. It felt like we were old friends – which, thanks to email, in some sense we are.

The Kansas Mother Earth News Fair was smaller than the reputed 20,000 person event at Seven Springs, Pennsylvania in September. There were, I think, about 12,000 people this weekend. This was the second year in Kansas, the first in Topeka.  The next MEN Fair is April 11 & 12 in Asheville, NC. Hope to see you there!

This past weekend I gave my Fall Vegetable Production presentation, my Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops presentation, and my Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables slideshow. All are on SlideShare.net. You can see Cold-hardy Winter vegetables here:

http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/coldhardy-winter-vegetables-pam-dawling-2013?qid=d647b9bb-97b3-4055-ad18-dc494dea2e20&v=qf1&b=&from_search=1

Meanwhile at home, the crew have been harvesting potatoes, ahead of the brutal weather switch coming this weekend.

October potato harvest. Credit Twin Oaks.
October potato harvest. Credit Twin Oaks.
Potatoes waiting to be picked up.  Credit Twin Oaks
Potatoes waiting to be picked up.
Credit Twin Oaks

 

 

Crop review time, harvesting potatoes, frosts and foliage

Beech tree in November foliage, Credit Ezra Freeman

Beech tree in November foliage,
Credit Ezra Freeman

We’ve had a night of 24F and two of 26F, so the season is really changing. Here’s a photo from Ezra’s blog A Year In the Woods of a beech, one of the last trees with good foliage.

In the garden we’ve been setting up the spinach beds for the winter, weeding and filling gaps. We had really good spinach germination this fall, but then the seedlings got eaten by grasshoppers or something, so we have been moving plants from where they are closely spaced to where there are gaps. Spinach is an important winter crop for us. Kale is another, and happily we finally got a good stand of that, after resowing.

We’ve also finished screening compost into our cinder block greenhouse beds. This will be our spring seedling compost and we like having it all ready to use (not frozen in a lump as it would be when we start in mid-January if we stored it outside). Over the winter we grow lettuce in the compost in the beds, and the roots and the watering help mellow the compost into a lovely condition.

Yesterday we had our annual Crop Review meeting where we gather to talk over the successes and failures of the past season and start to consider what to do differently next year. Us five Full Crew were there, along with a few of the more casual helpers and also our Food Processing Manager and our Cooks Manager. This was a horribly hard season, starting with losing a couple of key people and having a very wet spring which grew lots of weeds and got us off to a very late start. We had to cancel several crops we had planned to grow (celeriac, lots of onions, kohlrabi, peanuts) and we lost several more to weeds after we’d planted them (leeks, Chinese cabbage, winter radish, some of the turnips and beets). Unsurprisingly, we are planning on a more manageable garden next year, so we can build up our strength and be more successful with what we do grow. Plus we’ll have a substantial bank of weed seeds to cope with.

We also used the meeting time to pop garlic cloves in preparation for planting later this week. I suppose most of you would call it next week. At Twin Oaks our weeks start on Fridays and end on Thursdays, for reasons almost lost in the mists of time. Nowadays I suspect we just like the quaintness of it.

Now we are starting to harvest our second potatoes (“Irish” potatoes) which we planted in July (late, like much else this year). We bush-hogged the tops two weeks ago, so that the potato skins could thicken up and be ready to harvest before it got too, too cold. Today we will remove the hay mulch and the dried up vines and weeds, to the compost pile, and tomorrow we’ll start harvesting.

We have a Checchi and Magli SP100 potato digger, which you can see in action on YouTube. Here’s ours

Our Checchi and Magli potato digger
Our Checchi and Magli potato digger

The other main work going on in the garden is getting cover crops planted. Here are before and after photos of one plot:

Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes Credit Ezra Freeman
Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes
Credit Ezra Freeman
Late corn undersown with oats, noew mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover. Credit Ezra Freeman
Late corn undersown with oats, now mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover.
Credit Ezra Freeman

The past few weeks in our garden

I’m just back from vacation. It’s a very lucky farmer who gets two weeks away in the height of summer – one of the benefits of living in community. (See the Twin Oaks website for more on that). The rest of the crew took care of things, and I missed the hottest week of the year (so far). Here’s some of the jobs I missed:

A much delayed planting of the summer potatoes on 7/18 (a whole month later than usual). Our smaller tractor was out of commission for a month, and when it came back, people were lining up to use it. We bought some new furrowers In June, but I missed seeing them in action. Our previous equipment didn’t make deep enough furrows, leading to potatoes popping up above the soil and turning green. We mulch our summer potatoes immediately after hilling, which is immediately after planting, so there is no chance of hilling again later. We like to mulch (with hay) to keep the soil damper and cooler in the hot weather.

Our Cecchi and Magli potato digger
Our Cecchi and Magli potato digger
Potatoes lifted Oct 09
An October 2009 picture of our lifted potatoes.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

I also missed the harvest of the spring potatoes. We had hoped to do this earlier too, but mowing the tops was delayed and so the skins didn’t thicken up till 7/22. The potatoes are now safely in the root cellar, and I’m opening the door at night to cool them and to provide fresh air. Newly harvested potatoes are still live plants, still respiring and so still need oxygen.  I learned this the hard way years ago, when I didn’t ventilate the cellar enough. The potatoes died in the centers (the condition is called Black Heart). A very disappointing waste of good food. Later the potatoes will go dormant, and won’t need daily air exchanges.

Our root cellar. Credit McCune Porter
Our root cellar.
Credit McCune Porter

We follow the spring potatoes with the fall broccoli and cabbage, a slightly hair-raising fast turnaround. We have composted and disked the patch, set out driptape, stakes and ropes, rowcover and sticks to hold it down. Because of Harlequin bugs, we need to cover the new transplants for a few weeks until they have the strength to withstand the bugs. So we plant rows 34″ apart, under ropes on stakes. One piece of 84″ rowcover will form a square tunnel over two rows of brassicas. The rowcover is held up by the ropes.

This evening will be the first of many transplanting shifts. Because we are late, the transplants are larger than ideal. Ironically, this year the first sowings germinated very well, grew very well, and the bugs didn’t get under the ProtekNet. Fabulous transplants and they’ve had to wait and wait. Hopefully we can make up for some lost time by really putting our shoulders to the wheel and planting efficiently. having driptape really helps. We turn it on while we plant and so the plants get a drink as soon as they are in the ground. Watering is not a separate job.

While I’ve been away, the eggplants, pickling cucumbers, cantaloupes and okra have all started to produce. We are trying some West Indian Gherkins this year for the first time. I’ll let you know how the pickles turn out. They are strange things, like miniature prickly watermelons. Very prolific, disease-resistant and heat tolerant. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, though.

West Indian Gherkins
West Indian Gherkins
Credit Monticello Store

Climate Change, or just Weather?

We just had a cold night of 17F, considerably colder than our previous coldest this year (22F). Several people remarked how cold this November has been. Perhaps even colder than any month last winter? I decided to find out.

November 2011 had a low of 22F on 11/12, 11/18 and 11/19. The highest low was  56F on 11/21. The average low was 35.3F. December 2011 had a lowpoint of 18F on 12/12, a warmest night at 60F on 12/7, and the average low was 29.2F. January 2012 had a low point of 9F on 1/25, a “warmest” night of 39F just two days later on 1/27, and an average night low of 22.5F. February 2012 had a coldest night (10F) on 2/13, a warmest night (49F) on 2/2, and an average low of 29.3F.

Young blueberry bush in snow.Photo credit Bridget Aleshire
Young blueberry bush in snow.
Photo credit Bridget Aleshire

So how does this November compare? Our coldest night has been 17F on 11/29, our warmest night 44F on 11/19, with an average of 27.5F. So, November 2012 has had colder nights than Nov 2011 and Dec 2011, but not January 2012.

What about the daytime? Has it been chillier than usual? This November has had a max of  78F on 11/11, a coldest day on 11/27 (46F) and an average of 58.4F, not counting today. November 2011 had a 78F day too (11/14) and much warmer days, the lowest was 50F on 11/17 and 11/18. The average daytime high was 65.9F. Positively balmy! Dec 2011 had a high of 68F on 12/15 and a coldest day at 44F just two days later. The average daytime high was 55.2F. Colder than this November. January 2012 had a high point of 72F on 1/31, a coldest day of 34F on 1/21 and an average daytime temperature of 53F. Also colder than this November.

Overwintered Vates kale.Photo credit Twin Oaks Community
Overwintered Vates kale.
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

We record our daily max and min temperatures and rainfall, enabling us to compile the weather data from the past several years into some interesting graphs. Each year around this time we write up a report for the community about how our gardening year has gone, which crops were successful, which not. We also include an appendix about the weather that year and previous years. The appendix gets longer with each added year, so we shorten the reports from the oldest years, so as to give prominence to weather most people can remember. Here I’ll include just the past four years.

The Weather Appendix

As always, the weather changes –

  • Our 2012 earthquakes numbers 61-82 were recorded between January and July 31. No more aftershocks of the Aug 23 2011 big quake have been recorded since, although I felt two in August. It’s nice to have that piece of history behind us after a year of nervousness. Our last frost was on 4/24, a very patchy light frost. The previous frosts were 4/11-4/14. This fall we had a patchy frost on 10/13, but no serious one till 11/1. January was cold and dryish with freezing rain on 1/20. February was mild and wet, with one 5″ snowfall. March and April were warm. May was twice as wet as average (7.4″), and warm. We had four days of 90F or more from 5/25. June heated up, with temperatures of 99F on 6/20, and 105F on 6/29. Seven days of 92F or more. July was brutally hot, with 17 or 18 days at 95F or hotter, nine of them 100F or more. The hottest was 107F. Slightly more rain than normal. And of course, the impressive/oppressive humidity. August had “only” six days above 95F, September was milder and rainier, with 5.5″, and no major hurricanes for us. October was warm, with daytime temperatures of 70-86F until the last week (the Hurricane Sandy week). We were extremely lucky with that, only getting about 3″ of rain. In my memory, there were long drought periods when the need to irrigate was relentless, but the data don’t support this memory. Funny, that. We actually had 2-7.4″ every month and the longest dry spell was the first two weeks of April.
  • 2011 was often too rainy. January 1st had a high of 62°F, then the month cooled, with several nights of 10°F, one at 4°F, and two snowfalls. February included 6 days with highs over 68°F, (80°F on 2/18), a dusting of snow, a few nights in the teens and a normal amount of rain (1.9”). March was wet with 6.7” rain (twice normal), 7 days at 70°F or more, 6 nights below 25°F. April had 7 very hot days (90°F or more), average rain, and a patchy last frost on 4/14. May was very wet (6.6”), and warm, ending with a string of days above 90°F. June was also wet (6.2”, including one deluge of 4.1”), hot at each end , two days at 100°F, and milder in the middle. July had a brutal two week drought at the end, and a string of 14 days (including 8/1-8/2) with temperatures above 95°F. The highest was 104°F. August continued with high temperatures, but only 7 days over 95°F. We got too much rain (7.7”), including Hurricane Irene, which gave us 2.8” but could have been so much worse. And there was the 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered a few miles from us on 8/23, and the 59 aftershocks registering 1.8 or higher between then and the last for the year on December 24 (mag 2.4) . November gave us a 17 day gap in aftershocks, up until the 5 in 48 hours 11/19-20. September brought another huge 7.7” rain, including Tropical Storm Lee. Temperatures were nice, although it was often hard to work with the soil getting saturated so often. October was pleasant, if still wet (5.5”), delaying harvest of our potatoes and rotting our winter squash. The first frosts came decisively at 25°F on 10/30 and 10/31. November had 3.9″ of rain, December 5.4″.
  • The winter of 2009-2010 was remarkable for heavy snowfalls. The lowest temperature of the winter was –5°F (1/30). There was a series of 22 Nor’easter storms December to March. The last frost was 5/9, long after the first days above 95°F (4/6 &4/7). 2010 had a brutally hot summer. The days above 95°F were 13 in June, 19 in July, 14 in August, 10 in September. Days above 100°F were 2, 11, 2, 2 for those months. The hottest day was 107°F on 7/24. No major hurricanes affected us, although Nicole gave us 2.5” rain 9/29. Statistically speaking, the rain was a normal amount, but when temperatures are so hot, much more evaporates. On 10/2 there was a magnitude 3.0 earthquake with an epicenter between Mechanicsville and Fredericksburg, and another at Ashland, magnitude 2.4 on 10/30. First frost was 10/23. November was mild, but the cold weather kicked in 12/4/10.
  • 2009 started mild then got extremely cold in mid-January, with temperatures below  –5°F.  We had the first significant snowfall in a few years, and the pond froze over for the first time in at least 3 years. Last frost 4/18. We had average precipitation overall, but it was flood or drought, which isn’t good for the garden. We lost the new Ag Well pump and tank in the Tobacco Barn fire, and had difficulties with irrigation. The hottest day was 98°F.  We had a heat wave in early June, but only eight days of 95°F or higher all year. In early November it rained for about four days straight.  First frost was 10/18.

Twin Oaks October Calendar (Slowing Down)

Morris Heading Collards – our favorite
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Here’s our list of tasks for October. If you garden in zone 6 or 7, your list might be similar. If you live in a very different climate zone, leave a comment about your list for October, and how many weeks different your area is from ours.

During the month

Weed and thin fall crops in raised beds, especially spinach and kale. Thin carrots to 3”, kale to 12”.

Lettuce Factory: Transplant sowing #37 to fill cold frames; #38, 39, 40, 41, 42 in Greenhouse beds (9″ spacing).

Frost Alert:

Watch the forecast and if frost is expected that night

When frost threatens, harvest all peppers exposed to the sky. Corona is one of our favorite orange peppers. Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Harvest peppers facing the sky, tomatoes, cauliflowers, corn, cowpeas, limas, eggplant, melons, cukes, okra, winter squash, Blues cabbage (hardy to 25°F), if not already done.

Double hoop and cover: lettuce, celery (hardy to 16°F with row cover).

Spring hoop and cover: squash, cucumbers.

Cover celery to extend the harvest into mid-winter. We like Ventura.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Rowcover (no hoops): beans, Chinese cabbage, pak choy, Tokyo bekana, seedlings for hoophouse, collards  (hardy to 10°F, but cover keeps quality).

Cold frames:  Row cover between 32-28°F.  Add lids between 28-15°F.  Add quilts below 15°F.

Foliar spray greens with seaweed a few days before frost, to toughen them up.

Use overhead irrigation on peppers & tomatoes at night and some raised beds with tender crops.

Early Oct: Finish sowing spinach, kale by 7th for overwintering (last chance).

Transplant lettuce #37 to fill cold frames; #38, 39 in Greenhouse (9″ spacing).

Roll up drip tape from winter squash and sweet potatoes.

It’s time to roll up the drip tape from the watermelon, winter squash and sweet potato patches, in preparation for disking and sowing winter cover crops.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Move stored garlic from basement to fridge – store below 40°F or above 56°F, never 40-50°F.

Mid Oct: Till finished raised beds and sow wheat or rye before the end of the month.

Garlic Beds: Compost (5-6 tractor buckets), till and prepare beds.

Transplant lettuce #40, 41, 42, 43 in Greenhouse as needed, filling any gaps.

Get soil tests done, when soil is not too wet.

5th fall disking: By mid-month disk and sow cover crops where possible. Sow wheat or rye as covercrops – too late for oats or most clovers (Austrian Winter Peas Sept 15-Oct 24).  Could sow winter wheat mid-Sept to early Nov (good for small plots that are hard to reach with the tractor) and after sweet potatoes).

Harvest peanuts mid-late Oct after a light frost.  Wash, dry, cure 6 days in solar dryer facing east (don’t heat over 85°F), store.

A well-covered sweet potato patch.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Harvest sweet potatoes before soil temps go much below 55°F, or night air goes below 50°F: on 3 mild days – generally in the week that first frost usually occurs (10/7-14). Even a few hours exposed to temps below 50°F will cause chilling injury. (Frost on the leaves does not of itself damage the roots). Clip vines, dig carefully, set tubers in plant-clusters to dry on the soil. Select seed tubers (med-size tubers from high-yielding plants).  Save 100 Georgia Jet, 100 Beauregard, 20 each White and Jubilee. Cure in boxes with wood spacers and cover with newspaper, in basement with furnace going full time, for 7-10 days (85-90°F, 80-90% humidity).  Use fans. Splash water on floor. Curing is complete when skin is undamaged after rubbing two together. Restack boxes in storage cage.

Harvest white potatoes before the first frost (average Oct 14) if possible. Cure in root cellar at 60-75°F for 2 weeks, with good ventilation, then cool the cellar to lower temperatures: 50°F by 10/31, then 40°F for the winter.

Late Oct: Transplant lettuce #44, 45, 46 as filler in Greenhouse. Double hoop and cover spinach.

Planning: List successes & failures from labels. Prepare Garden Planning Schedule, Crop Review Sheets. Clean labels after info is recorded. Pray for a killing frost. File crop record info. Audit labor budget and plan endgame. Plan main garden layout. Hold Crop Review meeting.

Clear winter squash, tomatoes and peppers in order to sow cover crops, by 10/24 if possible. Sow rye alone or with crimson clover or winter peas. Crimson clover by 10/14; AWP, wheat by 11/8

6th fall disking: After the killing frost, or end of Oct if no frost: pull up tomato stakes and roll up drip tape, disk nightshades, melons, winter squash, sweet potato and white potato patches.

Check through veg in storage, squash once a week, white potatoes two weeks after harvest.

Perennials:Last mowing of clover in grapes in early Oct, not too short, and not too late in the year. Weed & mulch strawberry beds, and remove extra runners. Renovate if not already done. Start weeding, fertilizing and mulching the blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb and grapes.

Time to say goodbye to the rhubarb until April.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

October Harvests: Asparagus beans, beans, beets and beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, chard, Chinese cabbage, collards, corn, cow peas, cukes, edamame, eggplant, horseradish, hot peppers, kohlrabi, komatsuna, leeks, lettuce, limas, maruba santoh, okra, pak choy, peppers, radishes, Roma paste tomatoes, scallions, senposai, spinach, tatsoi, tokyo bekana, tomatoes, turnips and turnip greens, winter radishes, winter squash, yukina savoy, zucchini.  Could lightly harvest rhubarb before frost.