Frost, tomatoes, sun, rain, mistakes and future events

Tomato Seedlings in the greenhouse earlier in spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Tomato Seedlings in the greenhouse earlier in spring.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

What a week! With the forecast for low temperatures on Sunday and Monday nights this past week, we back-pedaled on our transplanting plans. The tomato plants in our coldframe were very tall. In order to cover them we extended the cold-frame height by balancing plastic crates on top of the blockwork walls. Setting the lids on top of this construction was a bit precarious, but it worked well. Only a few of the taller tomatoes got nipped at the very top on Monday night when the temperature plummeted to 30F. 5/14 is very late for a last frost for us. Our average for the past ten years is 4/30, but in 2009 it was 5/19. In 2011 it was 4/14. Farming is full of surprises!

Tomato Transplants in the cold-frame. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Tomato Transplants in the cold-frame.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

On Tuesday we started transplanting tomatoes. Hot dry windy weather. On Wednesday 5/15 it reached 90F. On Thursday afternoon we planned to continue the big transplanting of our Roma paste tomatoes. Three rows are in mowed no-till rye, vetch and winter peas cover crop and one row is on black biodegradable plastic mulch. (Here’s an interesting link to a comparison of the two biggest brands of biodegradable plastic mulch. http://extension.udel.edu/ag/files/2012/03/2012DegradableMulchWM.pdf) But Thursday’s shift was inauspicious. We started with only 5 of us (we plan for 7). One person had to leave at 4pm. One person was called away to bale hay. Another person agreed to provide childcare for the person baling hay, from 4-6pm. Then another person started to feel ill, and left the scene. The 3 of us still working at 3pm started to sow our second zucchini and summer squash. We each used two dowels to make holes every 6″ in the biodegradable plastic mulch. We got the holes popped through, but then another community member cycled by and warned us of a strong thunderstorm heading right for us. Discretion being the better part of valor, we retired for a tea-break and to consult the local radar on Wunderground. An intense “red and yellow” storm, not very wide (ie not very long-lasting), was due any minute. Once it started to rain we decided to quit trying to garden for the day. good thing too. We got an inch of rain in an hour. Too bad the soil hadn’t dried out enough for us to do a second hilling of the potatoes before this new rain. or make ridges for sweet potatoes. Now we’ll have to wait another week, during which there is 20-80% chance of some rain every day except Monday, when it is forecast to be foggy. So I’m getting closer to finishing reading my library book. . .

April 2013 Growing for Market
April 2013 Growing for Market

Meanwhile, in the Mental Gardening Department, I found I had made mistakes in my Growing for Market articles on parsnips and fennel, about which plants can cross-pollinate each other. So I wrote an apology and correction. One of these mistakes is in my book. In case you are reading my former, deluded, beliefs, here is the correction: On parsnips, the facts are that parsnips can cross with wild parsnip, but not with carrots or Queen Anne’s Lace, as I wrongly claimed.

On fennel, the facts are that fennel does not cross with anything except other fennel. It is widely said (even by some seed companies!) that dill and fennel cross, and some even describe the terrible flavor of the resulting crosses. Clearly this is a superstitious belief that continues because acting on the belief produces good fennel (or dill) seed. Similar to how someone might snap their fingers to keep away tigers – no tigers – complete success! I’ve long believed dill and fennel crossed. It’s good to know I don’t need to worry about that any more.

This is the first error I’ve found in my book. Soon New Society wants a list of corrections from me, for when they do a reprint. I’ve only found this and one formatting glitch so far. Embarrassing, but I repeat my Mantra for Consolation: “The only people who never make mistakes are those who don’t do anything.” On Monday I did an interview for Lightly on the Ground Radio on wrir.org (Richmond Independent Radio) with Sunny Gardener. I’m learning how to find and download the podcast (so many technical skills to learn!) I’m working on a powerpoint presentation on Planning Fall Vegetable Production, for Virginia State University’s Summer Vegetable and Berry Field Day on June 27 at Randolph Farm. This will lead nicely to my Last Chance Sowings article for the August Growing for Market and a Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables presentation for the Mother Earth News Fair in September

Here’s my list of upcoming presentations and workshops:

June 27 VSU Randolph Farm. Planning Fall Vegetable Production

August 19-20 Allegheny Mountain School, VA

September 6-7 Heritage Harvest Festival, Monticello, near Charlottesville, VA. Asian Greens, and Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests

September 20-22 Mother Earth News Fair, Seven Springs, PA. Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables

October 12-13  Mother Earth News Fair, Lawrence, KS perhaps

December 12 Local Food Hub, Scottsville, VA. Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests, and Winter Hardy Vegetables

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.