Peak Watermelon Day?

This morning we picked 99 watermelons. I hope this is the peak day of harvest! We’ve been harvesting on Monday and Thursday each week since 7/30 or maybe 7/26, I’ve already forgotten! Numbers have leapt up: 10, 34, 37, 99. We need 22 melons a day during hot weather, to keep 100 people happy. So for all of August, September and a few days of October, we need 700-800.

But today’s 99 is not our all-time record. In 2010 we picked 120 on 7/31. And in 2008 we picked 320 on 8/20. That was too many and too late in the year. I’ve only got records back to 2000.

2000 was a bad watermelon year. We used to transplant into hay mulch, for weed control. Of course, we knew hay would cool the soil, and watermelons love heat. But we just couldn’t deal with the weeds any other way. We hadn’t started using drip tape irrigation back then, so our overhead sprinklers watered all the weed seeds in the aisles between the rows too. We used a vast space, with 10′ between the rows. We didn’t get ripe melons till well into August. 2001 wasn’t much better.

In 2002 I did some research into plant spacing and found we didn’t need to give the plants (and weeds) so much space. So we cut the row spacing down to 5.5′ and planted twice as many melons. 5.5′ is just the right width for unrolling big round hay bales between the rows. We started harvesting 8/3. Much better! We got 60/week in the middle of August and 100/week by the end of August. Still peaking much later than sensible. Watermelon in October is like yesterday’s newspapers – there’s not much demand.

2003 had a wet spring, we planted into mud. The harvest peaked 9/16. In 2004 transplanting dragged out. Our new rowcover had a manufacturing defect and disintegrated like wet toilet paper all over the field. We got our money back but the plants were set back by the lack of cover when they needed it. We started saving our own seed that summer, selecting for early ripening and good flavor. Also presumably for spring cold-hardiness as they were from plants that didn’t die.

In 2005 I did more research into spacing, and we planted 2.5′ apart in our 5.5′ rows. It seemed wiser to plant closer and go for more plants and so more first melons (one on each plant), as it is early ones that we want. Keeping geriatric vines alive to produce a third melon or so seemed to be missing the whole point of eating watermelon in hot weather.

At this point in our history, we were still harvesting up until frost (average mid-October here). We were planting about 1260′. We started to track how many melons we had on hand and what rate we were consuming them, so we could decide when we had enough and stop picking.

In 2008 we had no hay mulch available. From this disaster came a wonderful thing: we discovered biodegradable plastic mulch. We have used two brands: Eco-One Oxo-Biodegradable mulch  (made in Canada) and Bio-telo (made in Italy). This product is made from non-GMO corn and it starts to disintegrate after a couple of months in the field. It’s very thin and easily torn if the soil underneath is not smooth. It’s perfect for vining crops, because it stops the weeds growing and doesn’t disintegrate much until after the vines cover the whole area. And the big plus is that the bio-mulch warms the soil, rather than cooling it. Biodegradable mulches are now available in smaller pieces for backyard growers, from Johnnys Selected Seeds and Purple Mountain Organics.

We planted 1800′,  more than usual because the area the rotation brought them to was a bowl shaped garden where crops sometimes drown in wet years. We started harvesting 7/31, and numbers rose rapidly.We didn’t get any floods.  By 8/20 we had harvested 1000. That was the year we decided not to wait for frost, but to disk the patch in early and get a good cover crops established for the winter.

2009 had a peak harvest of 174 on 8/15. I think we stopped at 835 total on 9/2. 2010 records show an early start with 2 harvested on 7/18. We stopped at 665 on 9/8. We tried to experiment with various row spacings and plant spacings, but once the vines all meshed together and the weather got hot, our enthusiasm for science waned! We were planting 1060′. August had an inhuman workload, and we decided to see what we could do to reduce August tasks for future years.

In 2011 we decided to plant less, as were short of workers. We planned on 1080′ but then cut back further, and only planted 900′. This year we only planted 800′, with plants 36″ apart, so a lot fewer plants than in the old days of 1800′ and 30″ spacing. The melons are huge this year – I bet we don’t eat 22 of these a day!

So, having looked at the numbers here in the relatively cool office, I deduce that we haven’t picked anything like enough yet, and need 5 more 99-harvest days before we think about quitting. Time to start using the truck rather than the garden carts, for hauling them away. We’ve found the hard way that even though we can get 20 or so melons in a garden cart, it damages the carts and wrecks the tires. So now we keep to a 16-watermelon limit and save the carts.

Twin Oaks August Garden Calendar

(MONTH OF TOMATOES)

Here’s the list of what we plan to do in our garden this month. We’re in central Virginia. Our average first frost is October 14

 During the month:

Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce every 5 to 3 days. Switch to cold-tolerant varieties after 20th. Transplant sowings #22, 23, 24, 25, 26.Set out 120 plants every 6-5 days (1/3 bed). Store seed in fridge.

Sort potatoes 2 weeks after storing. Ventilate root cellar every few nights when coolest. Gradually get temperature down to 65°F by the end of the month. Try not to have temperature reversals.

String weave tomatoes once a week until plants reach top of posts.

Onions: move from basement to walk-in cooler as soon as space allows.

Monitor for grasshoppers on brassicas, carrots, beets.

Prevent nutsedge tuber formation by weekly cultivation in Aug and Sept.

Seed saving: Roma tomatoes – select plants, based on yield and septoria resistance. Mark & harvest seeds (usually 1 bucket each time) on days before bulk harvests. Don’t use diseased fruit or fruit from plants in decline. Keep 4-5 days till dead ripe, scoop seeds on Food Processing shift days. Ferment at 70°F for 3 days. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest Mon, scoop Friday, wash and dry Monday. Save 4 buckets tomatoes for 130gm seed.

Crimson Sweet Watermelon Seed: Overmature 10 days, harvest, scoop seeds, ferment 4 days at 70°F. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest and scoop Tuesday, wash Saturday. 1 melon = 22 g seed. 22 melons = 1 lb seed.

Perennials: Make new strawberry beds: Compost, till, raise, drip tape, newspaper and hay mulch. Chip or sawdust paths. One new patch follows corn #3, other follows part of the Green Fallow area. Plantnew strawberries using plugs, rooted potted runners or plants carefully thinned from last year’s beds. Water strawberry plants for next year’s crop, weed, and give compost. Mow aisles for fall raspberries, grapes. Remove blueberry roof netting if not done in July. Mow, weed, water in general. Grapes:visit, log progress, tie in, once in early August, once in late August.

Cover crops: Sow spring oats and soy for winter-killed cover in empty beds. (Not rye – may head up before winter.) Can sow buckwheat, soy, sorghum sudan, clovers; possibly winter barley, Miami peas; or Lana woolypod vetch at 2-3 oz /100 sq. ft. with oats

Early Aug:

Sow beans #6 (8/3, 15 days after #5), cukes #5 (slicing, by 8/5, latest) & zucchini and summer squash #5 (by 8/9), winter & fall radishes, turnips (by 8/15 if possible, by 9/15 latest), Swiss chard, 6 beds kale (2 each on 8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24 until enough is established. Use rowcover against fleabeetles), beets (can sow dry or presoak 12 hours; sow 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp soil, keep damp, use shadecloth?). Sow all the fall carrots if not sown in late July & flame weed. Sow fall brassicas. Consider sowing sunflowers in kale beds to encourage grasshopper-predator birds.

Put spinach seeds in freezer now, two weeks before sowing, to improve germination .

Till between rows of corn #5, undersow with soy.

Transplant lettuce #22, 23. Finish transplanting all brassicas. Hoe and wheel-hoe the brassica patch, one section each morning. Re-cover or take covers from earlier plantings.

Water sweet potatoes when vines fully extended, (critical period for water).

Potato Onions, third sorting 8/5-10: check through, snip tops, separate clusters, sort by size, and weigh or estimate yield. Save 6 racks (150#) large (2-2½”), 5 racks (100#) medium (1½-2”), 4 racks (80#) small (<1½”) per 360 row foot bed wanted. Sell spare.

Plan and map next year’s main garden so best cover crops can be planted. Order winter cover crop seed.

Mid Aug: DON’T sow carrots or kale w/o cover (grasshoppers).

Till or wheel-hoe between broccoli rows (uncover), and undersow with mammoth red clover, white clover and crimson clover mix. Till between rows of corn #6 and undersow with oats & soy

Transplant lettuce #24

Sow kale #2, 3 (2 beds each time), fall radishes #2. Thin rutabagas to 10”, by 4 weeks-old.

Order seeds if needed: winter lettuce, early cabbage, other salads, kale, spinach, beets, onions, peppers, hoophouse tomatoes, winter hoophouse greens.

Late Aug: Sow kale as needed, scallions #5.

Finish fall carrot sowing if unable to get it done by early August – Flame weed.

Really finish transplanting brassicas, including kale from #1 beds. Transplant lettuce #25, 26

1st Fall disking: Disk corn #1 (future garlic), maybe form beds, sow buckwheat, soy (and Sorghum Sudan?) Disk corn #2 patch, sow oats & soy (future spring broccoli & cabbage). Or sow corn #1&2 in oats & soy and make garlic beds in October.

Disk old spring broccoli (may be already in summer cover crops), in time to sow rye and vetch 9/7.

August Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, cantaloupes, carrots, celery, chard, corn, cow peas, crabapples, cukes, edamame, eggplant, grapes (early or late Aug), komatsuna, lettuce, limas, maruba santoh, okra, pak choy, peppers, hot peppers, fall raspberries, Romas, senposai,  summer squash, Tokyo bekana, tomatoes, turnip thinnings, watermelons, winter squash (acorn & cha cha ), yukina savoy, zucchini.

Harvesting melons

Now is a rewarding time to harvest from the garden! This week we started harvesting our Crimson Sweet watermelons. At the beginning of July our Sun Jewel Asian melons started coming in, and somewhere in between then and now, our Kansas muskmelons (usually called cantaloupes).

Sun Jewel Asian melon

Sun Jewel Asian melons take only 68 days from transplanting to maturity. A good melon for people with short growing seasons, provided you can make a warm spot for them. They have crisp white flesh and are refreshingly sweet without over-doing it. The  long oval fruits average 7″ x 3 1/2″  and are pale yellow with shallow white sutures (“seams”). They ripen to a more buttery yellow and slip off the vine when ripe. Plants are resistant to downy and powdery mildews, and can be very productive. We buy seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For new growers: “full slip” means a gentle nudge with your thumb on the melon where it joins the stem will dislodge the fruit. “Half slip” is an earlier stage where you need to cut or break about half of the thickness of the stem. harvest your melons at half-slip if you are going away for the weekend, or you worry the groundhogs will get it if you don’t. But if you are harvesting to eat right away, harvest at full slip for best flavor and aroma.

Kansas Muskmelon

We like Kansas muskmelons. They are an heirloom variety with really good flavor, fine texture and enough sturdiness to stand up to humid weather and variable rainfall. The oval fruits are sutured (ridged) and moderately netted, averaging 4 lbs. They ripen almost all the way out to the rind (not much waste!).  Kansas also has good resistance to sap beetles that can destroy fruit of other varieties. It needs 90 days from transplanting to maturity. Pick these at full slip, and be sure to inhale the aroma at the stem end, as you carry them to the table. We buy Kansas from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Crimson Sweet watermelon in our garden

Crimson Sweet watermelon is the only one for us! It has the best flavor, though the pinky-red flesh might lead you to think it’s not ripe, compared to very red-fleshed varieties. We harvest ours from around 7/25 (75 days from transplanting) to the end of August.  There is a 10-14 day period of peak ripeness for each variety. We hope not to be still harvesting in September.

We save our own watermelon seed and select for earliness, flavor and disease resistance. We sell it via Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

A major factor affecting the taste is the skill of the harvester in discerning ripeness. The first sign we look for is the shriveling and browning of the tendril on the stem directly opposite the watermelon. If this tendril is not shriveled we walk on by. Next we slap or knock on them. According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, when a watermelon is ripe, it will have a hollow sound when you thump with your knuckles: it sounds like thumping your chest. If it sounds like knocking your head, it’s not ripe. If it sounds like hitting your belly, it’s over-ripe. Lastly, we do the “Scrunch Test”: put two hands (heels together) spread out across the melon, press down quite hard, listen and feel for a scrunch – the flesh in the melon is separating under the pressure. Rumor has it that it only works once, so pay attention!

Other growers with other varieties use different ripeness signs, such as the change in color of the “ground spot” (the area touching the ground), or the change in rind texture from glossy to dull.

I like to cut the melon stems with pruners, but some people break them off. Watermelons need gentle handling, as do the vines if you will be returning to harvest again.

After harvest, we set the melons out to the side of the row for pickup. This gives time for sap to start to ooze out of the cut stem. If the sap is red or orange, the melon is ripe. If it is straw-colored, the melon was cut too soon. This is useful feedback for new crew.

Watermelons can store for a few weeks, but then flavor deteriorates. We store ours outdoors in the shade of a building or a tree. Rotating the stored stock is a good idea. (They could be dated with a grease pencil/china marker). The ideal storage temperature is 50-60°F (10-15.5°C), with 90% humidity.

Keep the squirrels off!

 

7/20/12 Progress update on my book

Two weeks ago my copy editor and I finished getting the wrinkles out of my punctuation and phrasing. We had to extend ten days beyond our original deadline, but now we’re done! Sigh of relief.

The next stage, now the copy-editing is done, will be for the typesetters and design people at New Society Publishers to lay out the pages and proofread. Then I get to read it all again, in the stage they call First Pages. I guess that will be August and September. Then Kathryn Simmons at Twin Oaks will make the index. She’s not only one of the members of the Twin Oaks Indexing crew, but also a very experienced vegetable grower herself. (Maybe you’ve never thought about how a book comes to have an index. It doesn’t happen by magic! Click on the link to learn more.)

I’m also continuing to work with marketing people at NSP, compiling lists of magazines, websites and organizations that are a good match with my book, and good places to put reviews or advertisements. I’m also looking for events at which I’d like to make presentations. I’m negotiating a couple of possible bookings right now. Soon I will have postcards, fliers and bookmarks to distribute at events too.

The book will get printed in early winter and the publication date is February 1, 2013. I’m excited!

Meanwhile, I’m sending an article every month to Growing for Market magazine. For August I’ve written about manual harvesting techniques. People who don’t want to wait till the book comes out to start reading my work can get a sub to GfM. It’s a great magazine, full of the details small-scale growers need to be even more successful than they already are.

Sowing greens for fall

Senposai – a delicious, cold-tolerant leaf green

One of my tasks this week has been sowing fall greens. I start sowing in the third or fourth week of June, and set aside time once a week for about six weeks, to sow more and weed and thin the older seedlings. The first two weeks are the most intense, and if I’m successful with those, I have a lot less work in the weeks following. If something goes wrong, I resow whatever didn’t come up, or died.

For fall greens, we don’t sow in flats but directly in a nursery bed, covered with rowcover on hoops to keep the harlequin bugs and flea beetles off. It’s less work, easier to keep them all watered, and they are not cramped in small cells: they make good roots and are more tolerant of hot conditions.

This year we are growing twelve different varieties of broccoli and eleven of cabbage! We hope to compare them and next year just grow the best few varieties of each  crop. We are growing to feed the hundred members of Twin Oaks Community, not to sell to a wholesaler, so we want a long broccoli season, and sideshoots are as important to us as main heads. We want cabbage that stores, as well as cabbage that is ready quickly. Our broccoli patch is part of the Novic trials, so we hope others will learn from our plants too.

To organize all these different sowings I have a spreadsheet and a map of the nursery beds. I prepare the bed, make the furrows, write a plastic label for each variety, measure the rows, set the labels in place, then water the furrows very thoroughly before sowing the seeds and covering them with (dry)soil from the sides of the furrows. This is a good way to help seeds germinate during hot dry weather: the seeds sit in the mud, where they have enough water to germinate and get up above ground. It’s much more successful than watering after sowing, when you sprinkle water on a dry surface and hope in goes down deep enough and doesn’t evaporate. And, contrary to some myths, brassica seeds can germinate very well at high temperatures. They just need the water right there where the seeds are.

We’ll transplant our seedlings when they are 3-4 weeks old, watering first, then

Kohlrabi is another of the less-common brassicas. We like to mix the purple plants with the green ones

digging them up and setting the bare-root transplants out in their rows. We’re planning 2000 ft of broccoli, 1300 ft of cabbage, 540 ft of senposai (a delicious tender leaf green with some frost tolerance), 360 ft of kohlrabi, and 90 ft each of Chinese cabbage and Yukina Savoy (a cold-tolerant giant tatsoi). That’s plenty of plants to rehouse in a short time and keep alive and happy.

This year we are trying two new things. One is Proteknet in place of rowcover. It’s a fine mesh nylon fabric that keeps bugs out, but lets more light in than most spun-bonded rowcovers, and has much better airflow. We think we’ll have healthier plants. Also, we can see them through the mesh, so we know they’ve germinated and can spot problems early. One year we checked under our rowcover and found fleabeetles had got in and had a busy week, chomping along the rows. We got the ProtekNet from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland, suppliers of good tools with the personal recommendations from the company.

The second new thing we’re trying is drip irrigation in the field. We use drip for some of our crops, but previously we used overhead sprinklers for the fall greens. We’ve had trouble in recent years with the extremely hot weather in late July and early August when we transplant. We think setting out the drip irrigation and running the water while we plant will help the plants get over their transplant shock. And we’ll be able to give them an hour of water in the middle of each day for the first week, to help them face this brutal weather we’re having. And the best bit is: they can get their mid-day watering without me walking up and down dragging a hose. I can be indoors blogging!

Twin Oaks July Garden Calendar

(LOTS TO HARVEST)

Here’s this month’s task list, which you can adapt for your own vegetable plot. We’re in central Virginia. It’s 100F just so you know! October 14 is our average first frost date.

During the month:

Mow clovers, and sorghum sudan cover crop areas.

Lettuce Factory: Sow heat-resistant lettuces, every 5 days, (sowing #20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25), using shade-cloth & burlap to cool the soil after and before sowing. Soil temp must be below 80°F – use Jericho if very hot, with ice on seed rows, or sow in plastic flat in fridge. Transplant #16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 this month under shadecloth – 120 heads (1/3 bed) /planting. Store seed in fridge.

String weave tomatoes once a week with binder twine.

Seed selection: Romas: Select for high early yield and healthy foliage. Mark with ribbons on T-posts (bows on good side). Select 100 from 260 plants. Remove off-types, don’t select from plants within 150’ of other tomatoes.

Perennials: Water blueberries, take up & store roof netting.  Mow, weed & water all perennials.

Cover crops: can sow buckwheat, soy and sorghum sudan during July. Also white clover if damp enough.

Early July:

Mow spring potato tops if they have not died by 7/1. Spread compost for fall brassicas following potatoes.  Disk in compost ASAP, or if disking impossible, till.

Sow brassicas for fall, resow earlier brassicas if needed. Use rowcovers, water and your best powers of memory.

Sow carrots #8 (if needed), corn #5. Last date for limas is 7/6.

Asparagus: First week of July (or sooner) is a good time for weeding, composting and tucking mulch.

Transplant lettuce #16, 17.

Hill up peanuts at 12” tall, and mulch them.

Clear any remaining spring carrots, for best flavor.  Stop harvesting broccoli when it gets bitter.

Potato OnionsJuly 10-15 Second sorting: check through curing bulbs, starting with the largest. Eat any > 2”, or refrigerate and plan to plant them in September. Use Worksheet and Log Book.

Strawberries – July 6-8: If propagating from our plants, pot up 600-900 for each planting, pencil-sized crowns, 2 or 3 leaves, 4” petioles. Use current favorite method. Remember irrigation. 580 for 1 bed in East Garden, 900 for 2 beds in  Central Garden, 800 for 2 beds in West Garden. Finish renovating strawberries by mid-July, restore 20″ paths.

Plan, inventory and order winter cover crops.  Make cover crop maps.

Summer Disking: Get spring broccoli & cabbage area bush-hogged, disked, sown in summer covers – same time as second disking for corn #6.  Disk some of the Green Fallow area for new strawberries, sow buckwheat & soy.


Mid-July:

Harvest spring potatoes 2 weeks after tops have died; air the root cellar and warm to 70°F. Store potatoes in the early morning. Ventilate the cellar every night or two, especially if it’s wet in there.

Sow brassicas for fall; cukes #4 (slicers & picklers), zucchini and summer squash #4 7/15, corn #6 7/16, beans #5 7/19, edamame #5, storage melons. (Could sow snap peas 7/15, swiss chard, leaf beet, kale; rutabaga 7/15-8/15.)

Cut down all the celery to encourage a second harvest.

Transplant lettuce #18, 19; 2 week-old Blues cabbage,Tokyo bekana, maruba santoh;

Transplant senposai, yukina savoy, komatsuna, other fall brassicas – cover all with rowcover. Keep watered.

Water soil for transplants if dry: Set out drip tape for fall broccoli and cabbage. Transplant broccoli, cabbage, [cauliflower] at 4 leaves (3-4 weeks old?) in 34-36″ rows,

If eggplants are suffering from fleabeetle, start foliar feeding.

Seed Selection: watermelons: mark 30 early large watermelons from healthy plants for seed (use grease pencil).

Late July:

Sow fall brassicas, corn #7, scallions #4, fall carrots and bulb fennel in the last week of July, if not too hot and dry.

Flameweed carrots before emergence. (Get propane tank filled in good time.)

Transplant more brassicas, incl kohlrabi, collards, preferably not older than 5 weeks. Transplant lettuce #20 & 21.

 

July Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, beets, blueberries, broccoli (early July), cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, celery, chard, corn, cow peas, crabapples, cukes, edamame, eggplant, lettuce, okra, onions, peppers, hot peppers, potatoes, raspberries, Roma paste tomatoes, scallions, squash, tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash.