Modern Homesteading Interview, Things I’ve Changed My Mind On

Hoophouse squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Photo Alexis Yamashito

In April I did a pleasant phone interview with Harold Thornbro of the Modern Homesteading Podcast  about how year round gardening in a hoophouse can increase yields and the quality of vegetables and extend the growing season.

You can listen to it here:

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/modern-homesteading-podcast/e/60326060?autoplay=true

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The rest of this post is about the agricultural things I’ve changed my mind on in recent years.

Sowing Leeks
Leek seedlings growing in an outdoor nursery bed.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The first one that comes to mind is where and how to sow leeks. In Sustainable Market Farming I describe sowing leeks in outdoor nursery seedbeds. We grow leeks for eating from October to March, so even though leeks grow very slowly and need 12 weeks to transplant size, we don’t need to sow them super early in the year. Also because they are so cold-hardy, they don’t need greenhouse conditions. To save greenhouse space, and the bother of watering so many flats, we took to sowing them outdoors. To make this work, you do need weed-free beds. Leeks compete poorly with weeds. Sometimes things went wrong. One year someone decided to “seed-bomb” the fresh bed with poppy seeds. Weeding those tiny leek seedlings was torture! Another time, an overenthusiastic worker ran our new exciting wheel hoe too far onto the bed and eradicated part of a row.

Leek seedlings in flats in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

One year the leek seedling bed wasn’t ready in time to sow, and we sowed rows of seeds in a coldframe, after removing the winter spinach (or maybe we were still growing lettuce in the coldframes then.) This worked well. The next year we tried sowing the seeds in 4” (10cm) deep flats, and putting the flats into the coldframes right away (rather than germinating them in the greenhouse). Still no wasted greenhouse space! On very cold nights, we cover the coldframes, so it was a bit warmer than if we’d just sowed directly into an outdoor bed. The plants grew a bit quicker and we realized we didn’t need to start so early. They were easier to take to the field in the flats, compared to digging up the starts and carrying them in little buckets with water. We had reduced losses of seedlings, so we reduced the amount of seed sown in future years. It’s an easier system, with a more satisfying success rate.

Sunnhemp as a Cover Crop
Sunnhemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC.
Photo Pam Dawling

 Sunnhemp (Crotalaria juncea) is a warm weather leguminous cover crop that I’ve been admiring at various farms in the Southeast in recent years. I’ve been thinking it would be valuable ion our hoophouse and in our gardens. It fights root knot nematodes! I mentioned it recently at a crew meeting, only to be reminded that I previously spoke against growing it as the seed is poisonous! I’d completely forgotten my earlier opinion!

This summer cover crop can grow to 6’ (2m) in 60 days. It thrives in heat, tolerates drought, fixes nitrogen, suppresses nematodes, makes deep roots that pull nutrients from deep in the soil, and it dies with frost. It sounds fantastic, I really want to try it!  It looks a bit like small sunflowers, and according to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange  it  won’t make mature seed above 28 degrees N latitude , so won’t become a self-sowing invasive  in Virginia. Sow in rows 2’-3’ (0.6-1m) apart. If it gets too big, mow when plants reach 5’-8’ (1.5-2.5m) to prevent the stalks from becoming tough and hard to deal with. ¼ lb sows 250 sq ft. (¼ lb = 114 g, 250 sq ft = 23.2m2)

Sowing Sweet Corn
Young sweet corn with a sprinkler for overhead watering.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I mentioned earlier here, that I’ve changed my mind about the necessity to put up ropes over corn seed rows to keep the crows off. I suppose there are fewer crows these days, sigh. Not needing the ropes makes the benefits of sowing with the seeder greater than the benefits of sowing by hand, so long as we can irrigate sufficiently to get the seed germinated. When we sowed by hand we watered the furrows generously, which meant we did not need to water again until after the seedlings emerged. If we hit a serious drought, the old method could still be best. Overhead watering does germinate lots of weeds, including in the wide spaces between the corn rows, so we need to factor in the extra hoeing or tilling when we weigh up the pros and cons. So, I’m a “situational convert” on this question!

How to Kill Striped Cucumber Beetles
Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about these beasties here. We handpick the beetles in the hoophouse squash flowers, hoping to deal with the early generation and reduce future numbers. One year we had our first outdoor squash bed very close to the hoophouse and the beetles moved there. In desperation I used Spinosad, an organically approved pesticide. It is a rather general pesticide, and harms bees, so I carefully sprayed late in the day and covered the row with netting to keep bees off. It worked brilliantly, taking a fraction of the time that daily handpicking takes. I became a convert to that method, but no one else on the crew did, so we went back to hand-picking.

Pruning Tomatoes
Hoophouse tomatoes in early May
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I used to maintain that life is too short to prune tomatoes, which grow at a rapid rate in our climate, and get fungal diseases, necessitating sowing succession crops. The past couple of years I have removed lower leaves touching the soil, and this year I reduced the sideshoots on our hoophouse tomatoes, which are grown as an early crop here.(We’re about to pull them up in early August, as the outdoor ones are now providing enough). I do think we got fewer fungal diseases, and the diseases started later compared to other years, so I am now convinced that removing the lower leaves is very worthwhile. We also got bigger fruit this year, which logically fits with reducing the foliage some amount.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Compost?
Too much compost?? A commercial compost windrow turner.
Photo by Pam Dawling

I used to think the more compost the better. Now I am more aware that compost adds to the phosphorus level in the soil. I wrote about that here. I am not as alarmist as some people about high P in our situation, but I do now think it is worth paying attention and not letting the levels build too fast. I have got more enthusiastic about growing cover crops at every opportunity, and finding legumes to include in cover crop mixtures at every time of year (see above about sunnhemp). I was already a cover crop enthusiast, but as my experience increased, I got my mind round more possibilities.

Using Plastics
Rolling biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Photo Wren Vile

In my youth I was anti-plastic, If I were growing food just to feed myself, I’d probably still find ways to avoid almost all plastics, but growing on a commercial/professional scale (and getting older) has led me to appreciate plastics. I still don’t want to do plastic mulch, except the biodegradable kind, but I’ve come to accept durable light weight plastics for their benefits. Drip tape saves do much water, reduces weed growth. Plastic pots and flats are so much easier to lift! I do still pay attention and try to make plastics last a long time, and frequently salvage plastic containers others discard. I’m awed by the possibilities of silage tarps or old advertising banners, to keep down weeds without tilling and pre-germinate weed seeds so that when the covers are removed, few weeds grow. This was called by the awkward name of “occultation”, but is now more often referred to in English as tarping.

Hornworms

Lastly, I have a post on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening about hornworms, but you read it here first!

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