Heirloom tomatoes, string-weaving, seed germination temperatures

GFM-October2015-cover-300pxThe October issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about heirloom tomatoes. It’s an assessment of tomato varieties we have grown, mostly in our hoophouse, and how they’ve done in central Virginia. When we decide to try a new variety, we first grow just two plants, in our hoophouse with all the other weird and wonderful types we like, and a bed of early-maturing varieties like Stupice and Glacier. We also grow non-heirlooms, including hybrids like Sun Gold. We track whether we like the flavor, how productive they are and how disease-resistant they are.

Some of the winners for us are Amy’s Sugar Gem, Black Cherry, Five Star

Striped German tomato in all its beauty. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Striped German tomato in all its beauty.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Grape F1, Garden Peach, Jubilee, Mountain Magic F1, Reisentraube, and for simple delicious reds, Tropic. We love Cherokee Purple and Striped German, but they *appear* not to be very productive. I suspect browsers got them all!

This GfM also includes practical help with financial reports from farmer Chris Blanchard, a consideration of copper-based fungicides and their bad effect on soil health, from Meredith Melendez,an  Agricultural and Resource Management Agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Organic farmers need to take more mindful care when using copper compounds, even when facing Late Blight. Alexandra Amonette writes from Washington state about dealing with the extreme heat this summer, and Gretel Adams encourages flower farmers to hang in there producing hardy cuts for the last part of the year.


Detail of string-weaving tomatoes: locking the twine by crossing the second wrap over the first. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Detail of string-weaving tomatoes: locking the twine by crossing the second wrap over the first.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog has published my post on string-weaving tomatoes.

If you are considering a different support system for your long rows of tomatoes next year, give string weaving a go!


I heard my book Sustainable Market Farming got a great review in Acres USA although I haven’t seen a copy yet.


We’re in the transitional period in our hoophouse, planting the winter crops. Today is Yukina Savoy transplanting and tatsoi thinning day. As an aid for future winter hoophouse planning I’ve been working on a chart of soil temperatures for best germination of vegetables, and how many days it takes for germination of each vegetable at different temperatures. This chart is a work in progress, so if you have any gems of information to contribute, do leave a comment. For instance, if you firm up any of the uncertainties, or if your experience contradicts what’s written here, I’d love to know! Click to open the pdf.

Winter Hphs Crops days to germ

Yukina Savoy in November in our hoophouse. Photo Ethan Hirsh

Yukina Savoy in November in our hoophouse.
Photo Ethan Hirsh


And a blog I’ve just signed-up for is from the same Chris Blanchard who writes for Growing for Market. It’s the Purple Pitchfork or the Flying Rutabaga (the weekly newsletter). Packed with info on farming, based on real experience, from someone who is paying close attention.

Mother Earth News Fair, string-weaving tomatoes, Organic Broadcaster

At teh New SOciety booth at the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair, demonstrating how to string weave tomatoes. Photo Ingrid Witvoet/New Society

At the New Society Publishers booth at the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair, demonstrating how to string weave tomatoes.
Photo Ingrid Witvoet/New Society

I got home from the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania yesterday. My two workshops went well. My Friday presentation on Fall and Winter Hoophouses was the first time I had spoken on the “main stage” – the Mother Earth News stage, with at least 600 seats. On Saturday I presented Spring and Summer Hoophouses at the GRIT Stage. Both groups had plenty of people with good questions, keeping me busy till the last minute. After the Friday presentation I signed books and chatted with people at the MEN Bookstore.

And then there were the demos. At four set times over the weekend, I got out my table-top model and showed people how to string-weave tomatoes. As you see in the photo, I had pieces of pink tinsel Christmas tree branches up-cycled into model tomato plants, with #2 pencils as stakes.

String-weaving (also known as basket-weaving and Florida string weaving) is a cheap, easy way to support lots of tomato plants, and all you need to store over the winter are the stakes. No bulky cages or heavy cattle panels or cumbersome rolls of wire mesh. True, you do need to buy twine every year, but then many of the other support methods use twine also.

The ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production includes a comparison of different training and support methods. String-weaving comes out well in all categories. It isn’t best for high yields per plant, so people who only grow a few plants won’t choose this method. They’ll go for a more expensive and more time-consuming option. But if you have long rows, this method is ideal.

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

Our variation on string-weaving looks fairly like this drawing from the Extension Service. We have a couple of tricks to make it work even better. As in this drawing, we use a 2ft wood stick with a hole drilled at each end and the twine running through. Our first trick is to park the bale of twine in a bucket at the beginning of the row and leave it there. No need to lug it with you! (We have long rows!)  Putting the bale of twine in a bucket makes it easy to carry and provides a space to store scissors and gloves. Stand between the working end of the twine and the slack being pulled out of the bucket. That is, the spare twine will be running out behind you as you work the first side of the row. You’ll use it for the return journey. We tie the twine to the end stake, pass in front of two tomatoes and the next stake, wrap the twine around the back of the stake, pull tight, put a finger on the cross-over to hold it tight, and wrap round again, making sure that the second loop ends up below the first. This locks the twine so that if you let go, or later on a groundhog chews through your twine, the whole row doesn’t get loose.

String-weaving tomatoes. Photo Kathryn Simmons

String-weaving tomatoes.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

At the end of the row, take the tool round to the other side and work back in the same way, at the same level as the first side. You will need to flip the twine that was behind you on the first side over to your new working side as you need it. Once you reach the end, tie off the twine and cut it.

You’ll see that you never actually wrap twine around a tomato plant, so there is never any injury from tight twine. The plants are simply held between two walls of twine that you “build” by making a new round once a week as the plants grow.

At the end of the season, cut the twine and pull it out, then remove the stakes and till in the tomato plants.


broadcasterlogowebThe September/October edition of the Organic Broadcaster is out, and you can download the free pdf at the link. There are articles about cover crops, mushroom growing, tax planning, growing small grains, transitioning a dairy farm to organic, winter feeding of cattle, an update on avian flu and a review of the new book The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer by Jeff Carpenter with Melanie Carpenter.

Setting out biodegradable plastic mulch by hand

Pulling the roll of biodegradable mulch. Credit Wren Vile

Unrolling the biodegradable mulch and setting it out by hand.
Credit Wren Vile

Last week I wrote about the chemistry of various biodegradable plastic mulches, and how much we like using them. I promised to write about how we go about setting the mulch out without using tractors or mulching machines. We use maybe 8,000-9,000 feet each year, so we buy whole rolls, one at a time.

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Pulling the biomulch roll using the special hand-made tool. Credit Wren Vile

The first year we used the biodegradable plastic mulch, we had two people pushing the roll over the ground, as others shoveled soil onto the edges behind them. It was a bit of an Olympic sport, so we had to be in the right mood. If we saw it as a challenge, we did well. Then one of the crew invented a simple tool, a stick that goes inside the roll and has rope attached, so the roll can be pulled by one person, standing upright. Much better than bending to push a roll on the ground! A snag was that the rope would sometimes get twisted up with the stick. This year’s refinement of the tool is to have the rope attached to the ends of the stick with swivel clips. This allows us to unclip to take the roll off the stick, rather than use our teeth to untie the knotted rope!  We’ve also added a length of bicycle inner tube over the rope as a more comfortable handle.

Following closely behind the person pulling the roll we have two energetic “Forward Shovelers” whose job is to get a shovelful of soil on each edge of the plastic about every yard. We don’t want the Puller to get too far ahead, especially if it’s breezy! We want to “tack” the mulch safely down on the ground. Here we are mulching for sweet potatoes, so we have ridged the soil and run out drip-tape.

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The Forward Shovelers follow close behind the person unrolling the plastic. Credit Wren VIle

Behind the Forward Shovelers are the Rear Shovelers, usually at least four of them. This day, one was taking the photos, and others have mysteriously disappeared into the shade, so we don’t really have a good photo of this part.

About four Rear Shovelers complete the team. Here they are in the distance. Credit Wren Vile

About four Rear Shovelers complete the team. Here they are in the distance. Credit Wren Vile

 

A Rear Shoveler completes the line of soil holding down the edge of the biodegradable mulch. Credit Wren VIle

A Rear Shoveler completes the line of soil holding down the edges of the biodegradable mulch. Credit Wren VIle

It is possible to successfully store a roll of biodegradable mulch from one year to the next. The keys to success are to carefully wrap the plastic to exclude light, and store the roll on end, fairly vertical. If laid flat, the layers of plastic could stick to each other and not be rollable. Of course, you also need to keep mice away, and protect the roll from sharp implements. So if you need 4,00 feet per year, you could buy a roll every other year. This is generally a better deal than buying short lengths. As I said last week, I buy from Nolt’s Produce Supplies in Leola, PA (717) 656-9764. They sell Bio360 BTB645 4′ x 5000′ for $345 plus shipping, and Eco-One E1B548 4′ x 8000′ for $243 plus shipping. They don’t use email or websites, and they’re closed on major Christian holidays, so don’t call then! Johnny’s Seeds sells 32′ lengths for $17.95. Robert Marvel sells whole rolls of Eco-One and Bio360 (call for prices).

So this week, our mornings have been spent laying drip tape and rolling mulch, and our late afternoons transplanting. We have done really well this week, and we’ve transplanted all our watermelons and sweet potatoes. This brings to an end our intensive spring transplanting. Now we just have the leeks, the weekly planting of 120 lettuces, and a check on all the existing transplants about a week after planting, to replace casualties. We’ve also got all our T-posts in for our Roma paste tomatoes and started our string-weaving.

Growing for Market articles

GFM-November-December 2013-cover-300px

The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, and

Roma Virginia Select, grown at Twin Oaks. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Roma Virginia Select, grown at Twin Oaks.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

with it my article on No-Till Cover Crops. We use an organic no-till winter cover crop mix of winter rye, Austrian winter peas and hairy vetch before our paste tomatoes (our home-grown Roma Virginia Select available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange). We sow the cover crops in mid-September (zone 7 here, average first frost Oct 14). In early May the vetch is starting to flower and the rye shedding pollen, and we are itching to transplant our paste tomatoes. We mow down the cover crops with our hay cutting machine, which cuts closer than a bush-hog and leaves the straw in long strands. Then we set out stakes and ropes and transplant, pushing aside the cover crop as needed. The vetch provides all the extra nutrients the tomatoes need, and the resulting mulch keeps the weeds away for 8-10 weeks. By then we have installed T-posts and started string weaving.

String weaving tomatoes (these aren't Romas). Credit Kathryn Simmons

String weaving tomatoes (these aren’t Romas).
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We mow between the rows if there is much regrowth from the cover crop, or weeds getting big, then we roll out spoiled hay to deter weeds for the rest of the season, add some more organic matter and keep the cooler temperatures and the moisture in the soil over the high summer. We plan for this and make our rows 5.5ft apart, so we can unroll the big round bales to carpet the aisles.

In my article I talk about the pros and cons of no-till, and give examples of other suitable food crops and other suitable cover crops for no-till.

Also in this issue is an article about the honeybee crisis and what we can do, such as growing pollinator habitat and encouraging or importing other pollinators. A follow-up article discusses the big problem of neonicotinoid insecticides, which are very long-lasting and may even cause more insect deaths the year following spraying. This is a major problem for organic farmers and for everyone who eats vegetables and fruits. Yes, all of us.

There is also a timely article on preparing hoophouses to deal with snow-loading,and one on growing lisianthus for splendid cut flower sales.

Chris Blanchard tackles flaws in the proposed produce safety rules, which seem in places to be based on a nonsensical idea of growing food in a sterile environment. The comment period for the Proposed Produce Rule and the Preventive Controls Rule closes on November 15. If you read this before that date, click here for information and instructions on how to comment on the rules. Chris (who has written a series of very practical recent GfM articles on food safety) also writes in this issue about water (for irrigation and for washing produce) from a food safety point of view. Those who use any surface water (ponds, creeks) have a particular responsibility to check their water supplies frequently and work to keep them sanitary.

I have been writing an article for the January issue of Growing for Market, so that I can take a break at the end of the year. I am writing about Planning Your Harvest Schedule, and I’m including links here to our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar, which lists which vegetables we expect to have when (if all goes well!). We have the list sorted alphabetically by crop, and also by starting date.

Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop

Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Date

You can see what you could be eating if you lived at Twin Oaks and helped us grow it all. Actually, of course, you wouldn’t have to work in the garden yourself, to get this good food. We share all our work, and you could instead be doing some tasks I’d hate to do, like repairing cars, making tofu or tackling accounting.

November sunset Credit Ezra Freeman

November sunset
Credit Ezra Freeman

Twin Oaks Garden Task List for June

Admiring a cluster of blueberries. Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

Admiring a cluster of blueberries.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

Throughout the month of June

  • Lettuce Factory: Sow VERY harvest garlic, harvest potato onions, s, every 6-5 days, under shade-cloth, #15, 16, 17, 18, 19.  Transplant 120/week (1/3 bed) under shadecloth. Transplant #12, 13, 14, 15 this month. Could store seed in fridge.
  • Deal with Colorado potato beetles, if necessary, every 7 days with Spinosad (or  Neem.)
  • Mulch tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, cukes, asparagus, & watermelons (if not already done).
  • Mow buckwheat before flowering, and sorghum-sudan at 3-4’ (cut high) to encourage deep rooting.
  • String weave tomatoes once a week, first 3 rounds with thicker baler twine, then thinner binder twine.

    String weaving tomatoes. Credit Kathryn Simmons

    String weaving tomatoes.
    Credit Kathryn Simmons

Early June:

  • 1st June: Chit (pre-sprout) seed potatoes for 2 weeks in trays in the light. Let all sprouts grow.
  • Harvest garlic and potato onions (see Task List for late May)  
  • Sow corn #3, edamame #3, beans #3 (6/7, 24 days after #2). Sow cauliflower 6/1.
  • Finish planting watermelons (transplants or sprouted seeds).  Remove rowcover after 3 weeks.
  • Transplant leeks, lettuce #12, late tomatoess, (cukes & zukes #2 6/7, if not direct sown). Replace casualties in Roma paste tomatoes, okra & peppers.
  • Look for Mexican Bean Beetle on the first cloudy day in June. Order Pediobius foveolatus wasps when larvae seen . Maybe predators too (Lacewings, Nematodes).
  • Weed asparagus in this last week of harvest. If possible give more compost. Mulch again. 
  • Weed cukes & zukes #2 if direct sown. Clear spring-sown collards, kale, if not done already.

Mid June:

  • Seed potatoes: cut into pieces, with approx 2 sprouts per piece.
  • Plant & mulch potatoes,  Flag end of each row. 1.3 hours for 2 tractor passes.
  • Sow carrots #7, corn #4, drying beans, limas #2. Consider sowing sunflowers in leek beds to flower in late July/early Aug for grasshopper predators (to protect kale).
  • Transplant lettuce #13 & 14, zinnias. Clear turnips and kohlrabi.
  • Weed and thin to 24” winter squash as soon as they have 3 true leaves.
  • Till between rows of winter squash and sweet potatoes, if not using bioplastic mulch.
  • Curing onions in a net-covered rack. Credit Wren Vile

    Curing onions in a net-covered rack.
    Credit Wren Vile

    Harvest bulb onions when >50% tops have fallen, (6/11-30), cure indoors for 14 days with fans. Store at 77-95°F or 32-45°F. Take non-storers to walk-in refrigerator after trimming, weighing and recording yield of each variety.

  • Stop watering spring potatoes to encourage them to finish up. Bush-hog July 1st at the latest.
  • #5 Spring Tractor Work – by mid-June disk the rest of the garden: Corn #6 &7, any odd areas not done earlier. Get mulch for asparagus, Roma paste tomatoes. Bushhog  broccoli, and sorghum-sudan 4’ tall or more (as well as spring-planted potatoes)

Late June:

  • Sow drying beans, cucumbers #3 (slicers only), zukes, summer squash #3, 6/23, beans #4, edamame #4 melons #2 by 6/25, cowpeas #3.
  • Sow brassicas for fall, (use fall brassicas spreadsheet). 2 or 3 sowings of each variety (each enough alone), a week apart, as insurance.
  • Transplant lettuce #15, “filler” leeks to make up for any shortfall in earlier sowings.
  • Undersow corn #3, 4 at 2nd cultivation (when 6-12” tall) with soy, or just till.
  • Clear beets. Clear pea stakes if not done earlier
  • Get program for Louisa County Ag Fair, (1st w/e of August), to enter produce.
  • Sort Potato Onions 6/20-6/30 (without breaking clusters), starting with the biggest, and remove rotting ones. Remove ones >2” for eating, or refrigerate for September planting; or sell to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange before 7/31. Continue to cure small and medium ones for 2 months or more in total, with fans. Use Worksheet and Log Book. Be sure to write down where you store them!
  • Store any seeds not needed until fall (okra, nightshades, peanuts, melons) in basement
  • Snip, sort and store garlic after curing 2-4 weeks. Store at 60-70°F (basement), never 40-50°F. Seed garlic is best stored in garden shed (or 32-35°F).

Cover crops: can sow buckwheat, millet, soy and sorghum-sudan during June. Japanese millet is good for small equipment. Sorghum-sudangrass is not!

Perennials: Water all.

  • Till in oldest strawberry beds after potting up any needed runners.  Bushhog or mow, weed and mulch strawberry beds, mulch paths. Don’t compost until August.
  • Mow aisles in grapes and raspberries.
  • Weed, compost and tuck mulch round asparagus, (late June/early July).
  • Weed and mulch rhubarb.
  • New grapevines: remove side branches and fruitlets. Late June/early July:
  • Make a visit to the new blueberries and grapes, log progress, tie in, prune if needed. Water, weed, & harvest blueberries & select plants to propagate.
  • Blueberry Harvest: 12 person-hours 2 x week from 5/30 to 7/8, then 6 person-hours 2 x week till 7/27. 7 weeks total.

Harvest: Beans, beets, beet greens, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, chard, cherries, cucumbers, fava beans in one harvest mid-June, fennel, garlic, kohlrabi, lettuce, onions, peas, hoophouse peppers (green), potato onions, raspberries, scallions, squash, hoophouse tomatoes, turnips, zucchini. Harvest early potatoes from 6/15.

Store for 100 people,1 bag cabbage/week until 9/25 when fall cabbage matures. – say  from 6/25, store 12 bags.  Store ½ bag beets/week until 9/20 when fall beets mature – say 6 bags from 6/20.

Grapevines and Solar Panels. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Grapevines and Solar Panels.
Credit Bridget Aleshire