Lots of Rain! Thinking About Strawberries . . .

We’ve managed to work in the garden most of the time we’d planned to this week, even though we’ve had a lot of rain. Since the start of September, in just 5 days, we’ve had 2.4″ and it looks like rain brewing now. Before that we had a week without rain, but before that a week with 2.1″. The soil is saturated, and hoeing anything would be a complete waste of time even if it was possible. We just have to watch the weeds grow in most places, while we focus on what we can do.

Great news on our big carrot weeding – we finished that this morning! I made a new Task List for the week and it mentions a lot of weeding, which sounds daunting. I remind myself that compared to the carrot weeding, most of the upcoming weeding tasks are small. One 90′ bed of squash plants doesn’t take long at all, and even a 90′ bed of turnips isn’t so much!

Tender Grey Zucchini from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

I saw that our fifth sowing of squash has tiny squashes on it, so we’ll add that to our harvest list, along with the number 5 and number 4 plantings. That’s good news, because I want to “do in” the old #3 planting soon. It’s beside the watermelon, which is just about finished, and I’d like to pull the drip-tape out of there, and roll and store it for next year. Then as soon as the soil is dry enough to not get too compressed by the weight of the tractor, we can disk up that area and sow winter cover crops. Winter rye, Austrian winter peas, and crimson clover in this case, for next year’s mid-season sweet corn.

I just ordered two rolls of DeWitt Sunbelt landscaping fabric (weed barrier) for our new strawberry beds. We’re going to try burning holes in the fabric to plant through. The goal is to have more strawberries and fewer weeds. I’ve met and read about other growers who do this, and it seems to me to be our best hope. We can roll up the fabric and reuse it in a year or two, when those strawberry plants are worn out. Other members of the crew are less enthusiastic than me to try this, so we’ll see how it goes. If it doesn’t work well, I’ll be selling the landscape fabric in June 2014, so watch out for it! Really, though, I do expect it to work well and convince the others.

Planning ahead for strawberries

Here’s a link to Mark Cain of Dripping Springs garden in Huntsville, AR about Landscape Fabric in the Marker Garden. Erin Benzakein wrote a great article in Growing for Market in October 2011: Eliminate weeding with landscape fabrics. You’ll need to subscribe to read it. These two convinced me. There are a couple of photos on the Black Village Market Garden blog and a whole series on Mountain Harvest Organics, which is over twice our scale.

I’m on the point of ordering strawberry plants too. We’re getting plugs of Chandler strawberries from Cottles in North Carolina. (Call or email them for info on plants, mostly their website is about selling fruit and vegetables.) We bought from them in 2010 and the plants did very well. Plugs are the easiest way to grow new strawberries. They are little plants in plastic cell-flats. Shipping is rather expensive, naturally, because you are getting the potting soil too. But in this area, plugs planted now will be harvestable next year. In the past we used to buy bare root plants, which are just how they sound, and are only sold during the dormant season, for planting in early spring. Then you are not supposed to let them flower the first season, so you have to weed for a whole extra year before getting any fruit.

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.