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

What Makes Potatoes Sprout?

Harvesting potatoes. Photo Lori Katz

“White” or Peruvian potatoes (sometimes called Irish potatoes) are stem tubers in the nightshade family; sweet potatoes are root tubers in the Morning Glory family. This article is about Peruvian potatoes, not sweet potatoes.

Curing potatoes

Potatoes are cured enough for storage when the skins don’t rub off. It’s best to leave the potatoes in the ground for two weeks after the tops die, whether naturally or because of mowing, if you want them to store. When the potatoes are harvested after the skins have toughened, there will be less damage during harvest. Curing allows skins to harden and some of the starches to convert to sugars. These changes help the tubers to store for months.

When potatoes first go into storage, they are still “alive” and respiring, and need fresh air frequently. They will heat up if left closed in, and could develop black centers, where the cells die from lack of oxygen.

Storing newly harvested potatoes

For the first two weeks after harvest, the root cellar or other storage space will need 6-9 hours of ventilation every two or three days. The temperature goal is 60°F–75°F (16°C–24°C), with 95% humidity. Ventilate when the temperature is 0–20F (0–11C) cooler than your goal: in the daytime if nights are too cold and days are mild; at night if nights are mild and days too warm. If it is very damp in there, ventilate more.

Two weeks after harvest, sort all the potatoes. By this time, any which are going to rot have likely started doing so. Restack, remembering to keep airspace between the crates and walls. For weeks 2–4, the temperature goal is 50°F (10°C) and fresh air is needed about once a week.

Potato crates in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle

Long term potato storage

After week 4 in winter, cool to 40°F (5°C); in summer, below 50°F (10°C). Ventilation for air exchange is no longer needed, as the tubers have become dormant. The final long-term storage conditions are cool and fairly moist, 40°F–50°F (5°C–10°C), 85%–90% humidity—a  root cellar is ideal. Below 40°F (5°C) some starches convert to sugars, giving the potatoes a bad flavor and causing them to blacken if fried. Try hard to avoid having the cellar cool down, then warm up. That causes the potatoes to sprout.

Pre-sprouting seed potatoes

Potatoes have a dormant period of 4–8 weeks after harvest before they will sprout. The warmer the conditions after dormancy ends, the quicker they will sprout. If you want potatoes to sprout during the dormant period, trick them by refrigerating for 16 days, then pre-sprouting them in the light.

We routinely “chit” or pre-sprout our seed potatoes before planting. Bring the seed potatoes into a warm, well-lit room around 65°F–70°F (18°C–21°C) and set them upright in shallow boxes, rose end up, stem (belly-button) down, for 2–4 weeks in spring, 1–2 weeks in summer. For summer planting, store your seed potatoes in a cool place at 45°F–50°F (7°C–10°C) until 2 weeks before your planting date, then sprout them.

Seed potato pieces after pre-sprouting for planting.
Photo Kati Falger

The effects of ethylene

Ethylene is a naturally occurring, odorless, colorless gas produced by many fruits and vegetables, but it can also be produced by faulty heating units and combustion engines. Propane heaters should not be used, as propane combustion produces ethylene. Incomplete combustion of organic fuels can result in the production of carbon monoxide, ethylene and other byproducts. Do not use any unvented hydrocarbon fuel heaters near stored produce.

Ethylene is associated with ripening, sprouting and rotting. Some crops produce ethylene in storage—apples, cantaloupes, ripening tomatoes, already-sprouting potatoes all produce higher than average amounts. Chilling, wounding and pathogen attack can all induce ethylene formation in damaged crops.

Some crops, including most cut greens, are not sensitive to ethylene and can be stored in the same space as ethylene-producing crops. Other crops are very sensitive and will deteriorate in a high-ethylene environment. Potatoes will sprout, ripe fruits will go over the top, carrots lose their sweetness and become bitter.

Summary: Potatoes are more likely to sprout if they are more than 4–8 weeks after harvest; in the light; near fruits, vegetables, flowers or malfunctioning propane or natural gas heaters that produce ethylene; too warm, or warm after being cool.  Potato sprouts are toxic, see my earlier article.

Planting potatoes.
Photo Wren Vile

How to deal with green potatoes

Green skinned potatoes.  Credit Wikipedia File:Groene_aardappels_'Doré'_(Solanum_tuberosum_'Doré').jpg
Green skinned potatoes.
Credit Wikipedia File:Groene_aardappels_’Doré’_(Solanum_tuberosum_’Doré’).jpg

For a few years, we have had trouble with too many of our June-planted, October-harvested potatoes having green patches. We’ve been discussing what to do, and trying to separate myth from reality. How can we minimize the amount of green patches on our potatoes? How should we deal with them when they happen? How poisonous are green potatoes?

Here’s what seem to be the facts:

  • The green is chlorophyll, caused by the tubers being exposed to light. Chlorophyll is not poisonous. But the same conditions that promote chlorophyll formation also increase the production of solanine, which is poisonous.
  • It’s also possible for potatoes to have increased levels of solanine without being green, for example, if diseased or damaged or stored under warm temperatures or after experiencing spring frost (and making stunted growth as a result). Potato sprouts are also high in solanine. An unpleasant bitter taste indicates an increased level of solanine.
  • The Lenape potato was developed in the 1960’s to make beautiful golden potato chips (it’s challenging to to reliably make good chips without burning them.) It was pulled from the market in 1974 after studies showed that Lenape produced an extraordinarily high level of solanine.
  • Simply removing all green-skinned potatoes won’t remove all solanine from our diets. Solanine is a glycoalkaloid found to some extent in all nightshades. Other commonly-consumed alkaloids include caffeine, nicotine and cocaine.
  • Solanine is one of the plant’s natural defenses against pests and diseases, such as late blight.
  • The amount of solanine in an average portion of potatoes is easily broken down by the body and excreted. “[S]olanine levels in the blood are low after ingestion due to poor absorption by the gastrointestinal tract. Second, it is removed from the body fairly rapidly in both the urine and the feces, usually within 12 hours, preventing accumulation in the tissues. Third, intestinal bacteria aids in the detoxification by hydrolyzing the glycoside into solanidine(aglycone), which is less toxic than solanine and also poorly absorbed.” Andrew Montario, Cornell University
  • “Solanine levels above 14mg/100g are bitter in taste. Cultivar[s] with greater than 20mg/100g cause a burning sensation in the throat and mouth.” Andrew Montario, Cornell University
  • 2-5 mg of solanine per kilogram of body weight can cause toxic symptoms. 3-6 mg per kilogram of body weight can cause death.
  • A normal potato can contain 8 mg of solanine or 12-20 mg of total glycalkaloids per kilogram of potato.
  • So to get 2 mg per kg of body weight, a 100 lb (45.35 kg) person would have to eat about 90 mg of solanine, or at least 11.25 kgm (about 25 lbs) of regular potatoes.
  • Green tubers contain 250-280 mg/kg of total glycoalkaloids. The make-you-sick dose of 90 mg of solanine for the 100 lb person could be found in 0.6 kg (about 1.25 lbs) of green tubers. That’s green-all-over potatoes.
  • Alexander Pavlista at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln says that a 100 lb person would have to eat about one pound of fully green potatoes to get sick. That is equivalent to one pretty large baked potato. His report recommends cutting away the green parts.
  • Green skins contain 1500-2200 mg/kg total glycolkaloids.
  • booksPotato shoots can contain 2000-4000 mg/kg of glyclakaloids. These figures are from  Is It Safe to Eat?: Enjoy Eating and Minimize Food Risks, by Ian Shaw
  • The toxic dose seems to depend on the individual’s tolerance as well as the ratio of solanine consumed to the rest of the potato. 30-50 mg/100 gm; 24 mg/100 gm, 40 gm/100 gm seems to be the range in green-skinned potatoes, from various reports. See, for example, The Smithsonian article of October 21 2013 by K Annabelle Smith.
  • The symptoms of solanine poisoning include gastro-intestinal problems, and, more worryingly, neurological disorders.
  • Most victims of solanine poisoning make a full recovery.
  • Fatalities are generally restricted to people who don’t get treatment, or were undernourished to start with.
  • According to the British Medical Journal 8 December 1979, there is normally a high concentration-gradient between the peel and the flesh, but this is lost when potatoes are exposed to light or stored in adverse conditions.
Potatoes being harvested. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Potatoes being harvested.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Here’s what’s disputed:

  • Some studies have shown correlation between pregnant women eating potatoes suffering from Late Blight (which increases levels of solanine and other glycoalkaloids) and spina bifida in the fetus. But other studies have found no correlation between birth defects and consumption of potatoes.
  • The US National Institutes of Health says never to eat potatoes that are green under the skin.This has been variously interpreted to mean: throw out all potatoes with any green or cut off the green bits and eat the rest or cut off the green skin and also any green flesh under the skin. Most people seem to cut off the green bits and use the rest.
  • “Solanine is fat-soluble, so deep-frying reduces the danger.” The Department of Animal Science at Cornell University says that solanum-type glycoalkaloids are not destroyed by cooking.
  • “Solanine is water-soluble, so boiling lowers the levels.” An infamous 1979 case of 78 London schoolboys getting very sick after eating boiled potatoes that had been stored improperly for several months, seems to prove this belief not true. (All made a full recovery.) Results of a study by Takagi, Toyoda, Fujiyama and Saito “confirmed the relatively high stability of CHA [alpha-chaconine, the other main alkaloid in potatoes] and SOL [solanine] in potatoes under normal home cooking conditions.”
  • “Eating nightshades makes arthritis worse.” This seems to be an entirely different issue, as no source lists arthritis as a symptom of solanine poisoning.
Mulched June-planted potatoes. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Mulched June-planted potatoes.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Here’s what seems wise:

  • When growing potatoes, try to cover them adequately with soil and/or mulch, so that they are not exposed to light. Give enough space between plants so that tubers are not crowded and pushed up above the soil surface.
  • When mowing to reduce weeds before mechanical harvest, keep to a minimum the length of time between mowing and harvest. Likewise time between removing mulch and mechanical harvest. Manual harvesting can be done without removing weeds or mulch first, but there is a limit on how big of an area one person can hand-harvest well.
  • When harvesting, minimize damage.
  • When preparing for storage, do not gather all the potatoes showing any green into one container. Leave the green ones distributed among the others, so that no-one gets a higher level than normal. There is apparently no reason to use green potatoes sooner than others. Nor is there apparently any advantage to keeping them in hopes of de-toxifying them.
  • When storing, keep potatoes in the dark, and cool. Don’t store them for longer than necessary. Generations of potato growers have provided for their family needs for a whole year from one planting, so there seems no need to worry about storage up to one year or so.
  • When preparing potatoes for eating, cut off the green bits. Don’t use all the greened potatoes in the same meal. Reduce the risk by reducing the ratio of greened to non-greened potatoes.
  • When eating, spit out any potato that tastes bitter.
  • Enjoy eating your potatoes fried, boiled, mashed, chipped, baked, roasted. .

 

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

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!

 

Crop Planning presentation, weather and resilience

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/crop-planning-60-min-presentation” title=”Crop Planning. Pam Dawling 60 min presentation” target=”_blank”>Crop Planning. Pam Dawling 60 min presentation</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

My presentation on Crop Planning to the CSA Expert Exchange Online Conference on Friday 3/7 went well, after a short delay due to slow website loading. Joys of rural living! I just learned that our Internet runs slow on rainy days because the water in the soil affects the underground cables. A s a farmer, I’m very used to considering the effects of the weather, But I never would have guessed this one. Now I realize I jinx myself when I work outside in nice weather and do my desk work while it’s raining!

Spinach bed with a row of peas in the middle. Photo
Spinach bed with a row of peas in the middle.
Photo Kathryn SImmons

This week has been challenging in the garden because of snow followed by very wet soil. On Monday we managed to transplant a bed of spinach and the first week’s round of lettuce. That felt like great progress! Even though it is a month later than we would “normally” hope to do those tasks! We chose to work on the driest section of the raised bed area. Before that we had been weeding the grapes and spreading compost. Having some perennials to take care of makes good use of our time in the winter, early spring, and whenever cultivated soil is too boggy to step on (in).

These considerations are all part of a list we keep to help us choose tasks suited to the conditions, so we can make best use of our time without doing damage. A lot of our garden work is done on 3 or 4 hour shifts with up to 11 people. The honcho needs to be on the ball to keep all those people gainfully employed! Our honchos/honchas are the more experienced people, and will usually prepare for the shift beforehand, making a list of possibilities.

Some of the shift time is harvesting (only spinach currently, apart from getting potatoes from the root cellar and sweet potatoes from the basement). That’s our top priority. We try to get some harvesting done even if it’s very cold or raining lightly. The crops that wilt fastest get picked close to the end of the harvesting period, so they don’t deteriorate while we get other crops.

We have a Task List for the week, and our sequence of priority is generally harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand-weed. “Prioritize planting during the planting season” is one of the mantras we embrace. Sometimes other factors come into play. A new member pointed out that all my answers start with “It depends. . . ”

We try to do the more aerobic jobs (especially jobs involving shovels) in the coolest part of the shift, or on the cooler days. We also try to offer each person some options, because people do better when doing tasks they prefer. Sometimes we just have to grin and bear it: “This is the job we need to finish today.”

We are often including visitors in our work, so we need to make sure we mix up members and visitors on each task, so that visitors get enough directions and help. We also need to check in to see how they’re doing with the heat/cold and level of physical activity. We don’t want them to collapse! We also need to be firm about pulling them off a job if they are causing damage, and trying to find some other task that might suit them better.

Having the entire crew finish the shift at the same time is complex choreography! Putting tools away as we go along helps reduce a mammoth task at the end, although having some people cleaning and storing tools as the finish time approaches can be a good way of evening out the workload. The honcho needs to pace the planting, watering and rowcovering. It’s no good transplanting 500 feet if you don’t get it watered and covered before leaving the scene.

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter
Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

Sometimes it’s easier to start everyone on a big hoeing or weeding project, then leave an experienced person in charge of the straightforward task and most of the crew, while you pull out a couple of people to get a complicated task started. Next add more people once it’s up and running. Or send one or two experienced people over to set up, and then send more crew over as the set up work is done It’s awful having 9 people stand there while you try to figure out how to do a planting!.

We have contingency plans for specific situations:

If the day is likely to be very hot, have an “aerobic segment” at the beginning of the shift and get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).

If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.

After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work without getting bogged down. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains.. Standing on boards is an option for harvesting or planting..

If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. Don’t hoe if it’s about to rain, it’s a waste of time. Hoeing is best done in an area that won’t get irrigated that night. Likewise don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain. They’ll re-root.

If you feel frazzled, choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.

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

Twin Oaks September Garden Calendar

Welcome to Twin Oaks!
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

THE SECOND SPRING

Here’s our Garden Task List for September: 

During the month

Weed and thin carrots and brassicas (kale to 12”).

Lettuce Factory: Sow hardy lettuce every 2 days till 21st, (3 rows/planting) then every 3 days. Sow #34-46 this month. Transplant 120 every 3-5 days (1/3 bed) #27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 for last outdoor planting (Dec harvest). Transplant  #34, 35, 36  9/24-9/30 for frames

Root cellar: air and cool to 60°F by mid-September

Collect seed from Roma tomatoes if necessary.

Screen compost and fill old greenhouse beds before October, for winter lettuce and spring seed compost.

Early Sept: Prepare and plant new strawberry beds if not done in late August, using rooted potted runners or plants carefully thinned from last year’s beds (see August for details).

Transplant collards and kale if necessary. Transplant lettuce #27, 28, 29, 30.

Retrieve spinach and onion seeds from the freezer. After acclimating spinach seeds, sprout 4oz/bed (1 cup/10,000 seeds) for spinach #1 in fridge for one week, then direct sow (if <68°F, and dead nettle has germinated). If still hot, sow (preferably pre-sprouted) spinach in Speedling flats in float tank. 9/20 is last sowing date for fall harvesting. [Could broadcast oats into spinach at planting time for weed control & cold weather protection.]

Sow if not done already: kale and collards by 9/15; turnips by 9/30; radishes, kohlrabi, daikon and other winter radish, miscellaneous fall greens, scallions.

Plant large potato onions this month or early in October, at 8” (wider if supply limited). Cover with ½-1” soil, mulch with hay.

2nd fall disking: Watermelon plot when 800 have been harvested. Roll up drip tape first, or move to new strawberries.

Mid Sept: 7-14 Sept is the best time to sow vetch & rye, 1:2, 2# of mix/1000 sq ft (75#/acre) on old spring broccoli patch; crimson clover and rye, 1:2, at 55#/acre.

Transplant lettuce #31, 32.

Sow 1st sowing of hoophouse seedlings (hoop and cover).

Bring 6 tractor buckets compost to hoophouse for fertilizing fall and winter crops.

Move stored onions from basement to fridge, after apples peak in mid-September, and space available.

3rd fall disking: corn #3, #4, #5. Part of corn #3 plot may be used for new strawberry beds.

Late Sept: Sow spinach #2 for spring harvesting (9/20-9/30), and 2nd sowing of hoophouse seedlings and cover.

Transplant kale for spring, filling gaps; lettuce #33, finishing up the last outdoor bed; [#34, 35 & 36 in cold frames?] Plant large potato onions (>2”) if not done earlier.

Move garlic from basement to fridge late September-late Oct as needed to make room for winter squash.

Weeding: this is a good catch up time on weeding in the raised beds.

4th fall disking and seeding: Sow cover crops wherever possible (in unused raised beds too). The last chance for oats is early Sept (9/15??). Can sow winter wheat (winter-killed in zone 4) or winter barley (dies in zone 6) if oat planting date missed. (Oats winter-kill in zone 8). Can sow hardy Austrian winter peas in late Sept at 8oz/100sq.ft. with rye. Can sow red clover this month.

Bush-hog late corn if undersown with oats and soy cover crop.

Perennials: New strawberry beds: Prepare and plant by mid-September if not done in late August. Weed strawberries. Could till up grass in grape alley & sow clover if not done in March. If clover sown earlier, let it seed.

Harvest and store winter squash: Acorn (pepo) types (stem still green, ground spot “earthy” or orange), store 1-4 months; Maximas: Cha Cha, Jarrahdale, Kabocha (stem 75% corky) store 3-5 months; Moschatas: Butternuts, Cheese (peanut colored skin, no mottling or streaks) store 4-8 months, or more. Leave on live vines as long as possible, avoiding frost on fruits. Cut leaving long stem using pruners; handle gently.

September Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, beets and beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, Chinese cabbage, corn, cow peas, cukes, edamame, eggplant, horseradish,leeks, lettuce, limas, maruba santoh, okra, pak choy, peppers, hot peppers,radishes, Romas, scallions, senposai, summer squash, Tokyo bekana, tomatoes, turnips, watermelons, winter squash, yukina savoy, zucchini.  It is possible to lightly harvest rhubarb during September, if wanted.