Rain, raccoons and books to look forward to.

This week has come with a lot of rain, which has restricted what we can do in the garden, but saves me from running irrigation systems. It means the weeds are growing too well, and there is no chance to hoe: the soil is too wet, the weeds won’t die, just re-root. We’re about 40% down our 265′ long carrot rows (15 of them), weeding, but the weeds are now bigger than the carrots. Meanwhile, other timely tasks are going begging. probably we’ll have to draw a line in the mud and give up on the lower part of the carrot patch. Too bad.

Farming is completely non-linear! You don’t finish one task, then start another. Every day involves a juggling of priorities. At this time of year, harvesting takes a lot of time. And naturally, it’s very important to do it! After all, why grow food if you don’t harvest it? An added challenge this year is that for most of the summer crops (tomatoes, beans, eggplant, squash, cucumbers), it’s better not to touch the plants while the leaves are wet. Fungal diseases spread easily when it’s warm and wet. Many mornings the dew is heavy, so we start our shifts with some hoeing (if the soil and the forecast are dry enough), or carrot weeding (most days). Our next priority, after harvesting, is planting. “Prioritize planting during the planting season!” is one of our mantras.Here in central Virginia, the planting season runs from mid-February to the end of September (ignoring the garlic planting in November).

Yesterday we caught our eleventh raccoon in the sweet corn. We’ve probably lost close to 2000 ears of corn to these pests this year. (Two whole sections 6 rows x 60ft with a plant every 8 inches, plus serious inroads in three other sections.) We’re looking at installing an electric fence, but several crew are unenthusiastic, foreseeing problems with the fence shorting out on the grass, and inconvenience working around it. We need to do something different. This morning both raccoon traps had the bait eaten, but no captives. One trap was open and on its side – have the beasts figured out how to turn the trap and get the food out without springing the trap? The other was closed but emptied. Perhaps we have a giant raccoon that uses its butt to keep the door from closing while it eats the bait?

On a more cheery note, here’s two books to look forward to before next season. (People looking for gifts for gardening friends, take note).

51E7ayNJ7IL._SX260_Ira Wallace, from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Acorn Community, has written the Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. It will be published in December 2013. The write-up says “Growing vegetables requires regionally specific information—what to plant, when to plant it, and when to harvest are based on climate, weather, and first frost. The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast tackles this need head on, with regionally specific growing information written by local gardening expert, Ira Wallace. This region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.”

Ira’s book is for new vegetable gardeners, or ones relocating to the southeast. It includes month-by-month planting recommendations, skill-building tips, a primer for beginners and an A-Z meet-the-vegetables section. Paperback, 256 pp., 7½ x 9 in. (230 x 190 mm.), ISBN: 9781604693713.  It will sell for $19.95 and I recommend you support your local writers in the same way and for the same reasons we support our local farmers – buy direct from them and don’t line the pockets of the big corporations. Those places that sell books at big discounts don’t contribute much to writers and publishers! Southern Exposure will be selling the book through their catalog and at events where they have a booth.

bookcover

Cindy Connor has written Grow a Sustainable Diet, which will be published by New Society in Spring 2014. Read what she has to say to introduce it on her blog Homeplace Earth. Cindy says: ” This book is for folks who want to grow all, or a substantial amount, of their food and do it in a way that has a small ecological footprint. Particular attention would need to be paid to crop choices for your diet and for feeding back the soil . . . If you wanted, you could use the information from this book to plan a complete diet of homegrown foods.” Or you could choose which bits best fit your life and use her worksheets, diet planning, garden planning and information on cover crops, livestock, food storage and preservation, sheds and fences to help you provide more of your own food. And you can enjoy her stories.

I haven’t yet got the price for Cindy’s book, or the ISBN, or a firm date, but check her website regularly or subscribe to her blog (which is always packed with good information). I will post more information as I get it. You can bet Cindy will be selling the book directly, and that SESE will also carry it.

Motivation, saving time, rain, cold night

Transplanting Trowel Chart 2 2013.jpegI reported last time how quickly we managed to get our broccoli and cabbage transplanting done this year. Some of us talked about devising a “thermometer” style chart to measure our progress. The outcome was this “Trowel Chart”, based on our favorite Wilcox 102 trowels, which transplanted 2267 broccoli and cabbage with us over the course of 10 evenings.

I always like to learn new time-saving tricks, and this year I gained a great one from one of our newer crew members. When we are replacing casualties in our transplants a couple of weeks after the transplanting, we have to look under the rowcover to find the no-good plants. Some people completely remove the rowcover to one side, which takes time, and seems unnecessary when there are relatively few to replace. The problem with saving time by lifting the edge and peeking under is finding a way to mark the spots where a new plant is needed. It had never occurred to me: pull up the damaged plant and lay it on top of the rowcover marking the spot! Like many good ideas, this one seems obvious once you know!

This year, thanks to good crew, lucky weather, drip irrigation and new or fairly new rowcover, we didn’t have many casualties. The main culprits were rabbits who bit the centers out of a few.

We ran the drip irrigation every day while we were transplanting, and twice a week since, but on Saturday (after the end of our garden shift) we had a big downpour. Here’s a picture

Soggy Saturday garden. Credit Ezra Freeman

Soggy Saturday garden. Credit Ezra Freeman

This was taken by Ezra and posted on his blog ObserVA: A Year of Observing Nature in Rural Virginia. His blog is full of mushrooms, plants, animals and  derring-do.

Last night we recorded a low of 49F (9.5C), very chilly for mid-August in central Virginia! The nearby town of Louisa recorded a low of 53F, equaling the record low set in 1983. NOAA already recorded March-May as the coldest spring since 1996

Too much rain! But garlic scapes to cheer us up.

Having plenty of 5 gallon buckets is important. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Having plenty of 5 gallon buckets is important.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

We had 4.6″ rain over a few days and nights. We had to dig trenches across the potato patch to drain out the water, which had reached the tops of the hills (thank goodness we got the first hilling done before the rain!) We also dug “:flood abatement” ditches at the low end of our raised bed area. Even so, we have been really restricted in where we could work. I tell people to harvest or weed at the dry ends of the beds, and back out as soon as their feet start to sink in mud. I don’t want us to compact the soil and make future drainage worse, and give the roots have a hard time growing. To use the rainy weather, we washed our work gloves and started tackling our “Stuck Buckets” stacks. I don’t think we unstuck any at all last year. We had about 50 or so stuck in pairs or triplets. After wrangling them and trying various back-muscle-risking maneuvers, we run them through our commercial dishwasher. When the plastic is hot, the wet buckets come apart more easily.

Blueberry bush with green berries. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Blueberry bush with green berries.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’ve had to be creative in finding work we can do. Tempting as it is to take a big nap, I know we will be scrambling later, as soon as it warms up and dries out. So yesterday we put our blueberry netting up. The berries are still green, in some cases they are still blossoms, but it’s one job we won’t have to do later. We’ve also pre-emptively been organizing our drip tape and setting up systems we won’t need for at least a week.

This is how we usually sow our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed. Credit Kathryn Simmons

This is how we usually sow our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re also starting our leek transplanting. Normally we do this in early June, but this year we sowed our seeds in flats rather than in an outdoor nursery bed, and the plants are big earlier, especially the faster growing King Richard and Lincoln. So we’re going to transplant those today. They are nice and cold-tolerant (we’ve got a forecast low of 34F in a few days!), and will keep us from putting tomato plants out too early and regretting it later.

Starting to harvest garlic scapes lifts our spirits because it is a tasty attractive new crop for the year, and pleasant work. Here’s what I wrote about them for my book, Sustainable Market Farming (c) Pam Dawling 2013.

Garlic plants in late spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Garlic plants in late spring.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Garlic scapes are the firm, round seed stems that grow from hardneck garlic and start to appear three weeks before harvest, as the bulbs size up. If these are removed, the garlic bulbs will be easier to braid, if you want braids from hardneck varieties. Scapes also make an early-season visually attractive crop. Contrary to ideas mentioned by some sources, leaving scapes in does not increase the storage life of the garlic.

Most people who remove scapes cut them where they emerge from the leaves. We prefer to pull ours, to get the most out of them. We don’t wait for the top of the scape to loop around, as the scapes will have begun to toughen and reduce the final yield of the garlic. As soon as the pointed caps of the scape have cleared the plant center, grasp the round stem just below the cap and pull slowly and steadily vertically upwards. The scape emerges with a strange popping sound and you have the full length of the scape, including the tender lower portion. Sometimes the scapes will snap rather than pull right out, but the remainder of the stem can be pulled next time, when it has grown taller.

We gather into buckets, with the scapes standing upright, so we can put a little water in the bucket and the scapes are aligned, easy to cut up. They will store well in a refrigerator for months if needed. Late morning is a good time to pull scapes (or early afternoon). The wound heals over in fifteen to twenty minutes in the heat of the day, whereas otherwise it could drip for up to 24 hours, increasing the risk of disease, and losing water from the plant.

We harvest scapes two or three times a week, for about three weeks in May. The crew always enjoys this task, partly because it’s a stand-up job and partly because we encourage a friendly competition to see who can get the longest scape of the day. This encourages everyone to perfect their technique too. Scapes can be chopped and used in stir-fries, pesto, garlic butter, pickles and other dishes in place of bulb garlic. They can also be frozen for out of season use. Searching the Internet will reveal lots of recipes. Scapes sell in bunches of six to ten. One acre (0.4 hectare) of hardneck  garlic can produce 300–500 lbs (140–225 kg) of scapes.

Home from CFSA, Superstorm Sandy

Beauregard sweet potato
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Superstorm Sandy didn’t do us much damage, luckily. It’s been raining for 40 hours, but we’ve only got 2.8 inches so far and it looks like it’s going to clear up later today. Despite my worries about the broken hoophouse windows blowing in and us losing our newly re-plasticked hoophouse, it didn’t happen. We didn’t have any really high winds, and we didn’t even lose power, but of course we did all the prep work.

Georgia Jet
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Yesterday we re-stacked our sweet potatoes which had finished curing (the skins don’t rub off any more). We moved them into a wire rodent-proof cage, and close-stacked them, taking away all the sticks that spaced the boxes during curing. I haven’t got numbers for the total yield yet, but it comes to 96 boxes. The Georgia Jet produced 42 boxes and the Beauregard only 32 from the same length row. Our two heirloom varieties produced three boxes each. We don’t expect many of them, but we are keeping the varieties alive, because genetic diversity is important and who knows what secret virtues these varieties have?

We also bravely spent time in the rain, digging drainage ditches to reduce the impact of the hurricane. They seem to have worked quite well. And we draped the soggy rowcovers over the frost tender crops, in anticipation of freezing conditions.

While I was away at the CFSA Conference, the crew harvested the white potatoes. We got a good yield (also no numbers yet), but we got a disappointingly large number of greened potatoes. (Green from being exposed to the light.) I think the reason is that our new experimental tractor-mounted furrow-making disks don’t make furrows as deep as we need. The walk-behind BCS furrower on the rototiller made adequate furrows, but not as good as the old Troybilt furrower. This flags a need to research better gear before March.

I had a great time at the CFSA Conference. I think there were about 700 people there. About 70 came to my workshop Growing Great Garlic, on Saturday afternoon. They were very appreciative, and I managed OK without my notes! It’s not as bad as it sounds – I had a slideshow and had practiced quite a few times, and knew it better than I would have guessed. Somehow I couldn’t get my notes on the laptop screen without them also appearing on the big screen along with lots of clutter. This flags a need to find out before my three workshops at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, January 23-26. Busy, busy.

The conference was very well organized and the food was spectacular – mostly local and sustainably grown. I had the chance to attend several workshops by other people. Tony Keinath, the vegetable pathologist at Clemson University, talked on Sustainable and Organic Approaches to Managing Cucurbit and Tomato Diseases – a very well-prepared and information-packed session. I feel in a better place to tackle next year’s plagues now. I was struck by the fact that he had seen NO benefits of using Oxidate, the hydrogen peroxide disease control product.

A workshop I found particularly valuable was Laura Lengnick‘s presentation “Is Your Farm Climate Ready?”  She is doing valuable work to help farmers get ready for climate variability. She is one of the main authors of a USDA ARS report Climate Change and Agriculture: Effect and Adaptation. Its publication date is November 14 2012. She also spoke at the August 2012 symposium of the Ecological Society of America, Climate change impacts on agricultural systems:

She suggests viewing climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as vulnerability, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). Rising air temperatures, including night temperatures, more extreme temperatures provide threats and some opportunities. Increasing CO2 levels will provide some positive effects such as faster crop growth. As far as adaptive capacity, the main feature of that aspect is our personal capacity to respond and plan. Laura Lengnick says “Greater attention to climate as critical for decision-making is expected by future generations of producers.” We need to start with ourselves.

Baby ginger, ready to be eaten, pickled, candied, frozen.
Photo East Branch Ginger

Next I attended a workshop by Susan Anderson of East Branch Ginger, and learned so much about how to do the best by this crop, that I am looking forward to an even bigger harvest next year. This year we harvested 165 pounds, and saved 65 pounds as seed stock, so we can plant a bigger patch in next year’s hoophouse.

Harvested baby ginger, about 6 months old
Photo East Branch Ginger

Meanwhile I’ve finished my next article for Growing for Market. My working title is Knowing When to Take Action. It’s the third part of my series on being a resilient farmer. This article includes scouting and monitoring for pests and diseases; using pest and disease forecast services; and being prepared for the effects of extreme high and low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses? A big part of the article is a table of soil temperatures to help when deciding planting and harvesting dates.

Lots of Rain! Thinking About Strawberries . . .

We’ve managed to work in the garden most of the time we’d planned to this week, even though we’ve had a lot of rain. Since the start of September, in just 5 days, we’ve had 2.4″ and it looks like rain brewing now. Before that we had a week without rain, but before that a week with 2.1″. The soil is saturated, and hoeing anything would be a complete waste of time even if it was possible. We just have to watch the weeds grow in most places, while we focus on what we can do.

Great news on our big carrot weeding – we finished that this morning! I made a new Task List for the week and it mentions a lot of weeding, which sounds daunting. I remind myself that compared to the carrot weeding, most of the upcoming weeding tasks are small. One 90′ bed of squash plants doesn’t take long at all, and even a 90′ bed of turnips isn’t so much!

Tender Grey Zucchini from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I saw that our fifth sowing of squash has tiny squashes on it, so we’ll add that to our harvest list, along with the number 5 and number 4 plantings. That’s good news, because I want to “do in” the old #3 planting soon. It’s beside the watermelon, which is just about finished, and I’d like to pull the drip-tape out of there, and roll and store it for next year. Then as soon as the soil is dry enough to not get too compressed by the weight of the tractor, we can disk up that area and sow winter cover crops. Winter rye, Austrian winter peas, and crimson clover in this case, for next year’s mid-season sweet corn.

I just ordered two rolls of DeWitt Sunbelt landscaping fabric (weed barrier) for our new strawberry beds. We’re going to try burning holes in the fabric to plant through. The goal is to have more strawberries and fewer weeds. I’ve met and read about other growers who do this, and it seems to me to be our best hope. We can roll up the fabric and reuse it in a year or two, when those strawberry plants are worn out. Other members of the crew are less enthusiastic than me to try this, so we’ll see how it goes. If it doesn’t work well, I’ll be selling the landscape fabric in June 2014, so watch out for it! Really, though, I do expect it to work well and convince the others.

Planning ahead for strawberries

Here’s a link to Mark Cain of Dripping Springs garden in Huntsville, AR about Landscape Fabric in the Marker Garden. Erin Benzakein wrote a great article in Growing for Market in October 2011: Eliminate weeding with landscape fabrics. You’ll need to subscribe to read it. These two convinced me. There are a couple of photos on the Black Village Market Garden blog and a whole series on Mountain Harvest Organics, which is over twice our scale.

I’m on the point of ordering strawberry plants too. We’re getting plugs of Chandler strawberries from Cottles in North Carolina. (Call or email them for info on plants, mostly their website is about selling fruit and vegetables.) We bought from them in 2010 and the plants did very well. Plugs are the easiest way to grow new strawberries. They are little plants in plastic cell-flats. Shipping is rather expensive, naturally, because you are getting the potting soil too. But in this area, plugs planted now will be harvestable next year. In the past we used to buy bare root plants, which are just how they sound, and are only sold during the dormant season, for planting in early spring. Then you are not supposed to let them flower the first season, so you have to weed for a whole extra year before getting any fruit.