Peterson Pawpaws Success, more cold weather, sturdy seedlings

ffac5b6bec40f9b6194c44df0fe3126d_originalphoto-1024x768A few weeks ago I wrote about Neal Peterson’s Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay for trademarks for the six varieties of pawpaw he has been breeding during the last 38 years. This will enable him to export the plants to nurseries in japan and Europe, which are enthusiastic to stock his varieties. The great news is that the Kickstarter Campaign has been successful, with less than 22 hours to go. He’d still accept more donations, naturally, to help defray costs. The website has lots of interesting information, including his video, an NPR video report, the history of this project, some photos of pawpaws from his varieties, press reviews, and an explanation of why trademarks are necessary and important for exports like this. Congratulations Neal! And all the best with the enterprise!

Snow Yucca. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Snow Yucca.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

Yes, more cold weather! We had been planning to have garden shifts four times a week, with up to ten people working for three hours each shift. None of this has happened since it started to snow on Monday 16 February. The garden has been inaccessible, under snow and ice. That’s 180 hours of work we haven’t done, and the prospect is for losing another 180 and even then the soil will be too wet to till.

Oh well! This gives us time to sharpen tools, repair them and cold frame lids and wooden flats. On that subject, Cindy Conner has written about using wood flats on her blog Homeplace Earth. She writes about different sizes of wood flat. Her choice would be 8 x 18¾” x 3-4″. We make two sizes: 12 x 24 x 3″ for seedlings and 12 x 24 x 4″ for spotted out seedlings, as I said in my reply to the comment by Jeff. I prefer cedar or pine, rather than oak (which we have lots of). This is mostly about the weight, but also that oak gets splintery, and I’ve had too many hand injuries while enthusiastically spotting seedlings. After we decided No More Oak Flats we made a new batch in cedar. We made them 15 x 24 x 4″ and those are now heavier than I care to lift once they are full of compost and plants. They (along with other flats) make great sweet potato storage boxes, though!

Sweet potatoes stored in off-duty wood seed flats. Credit Nina Gentle
Sweet potatoes curing in off-duty wood seed flats.
Credit Nina Gentle

All the plants in our hoophpouse and our greenhouse have survived the horrific weather (down to -12F one night!). We have been covering the plants at night with thick rowcover, which we have only needed to do on occasional super-cold nights in the past few years. We have also started using an electric heater in the greenhouse, with the thermostat set to 45F, to fend off the worst. Our efforts have been worthwhile, and we have a hoophouse full of food (very fortunate considering that we can’t get at the spinach, leeks and kale in the outdoor garden). We also have very sturdy seedlings in the greenhouse. The tomato plants (for the hoophouse in mid-March) are in the greenhouse on a heating mat under a poly tent. They look very good indeed. Here’s a picture from a previous year.

This time next week? Tomato seedlings potted up in the greenhouse.  Credit Kathryn Simmons
This time next week? Tomato seedlings potted up in the greenhouse.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Planting leeks, eating cicadas

Yes, we’re still planting leeks! Later than we intended, but the soil is nice and moist, thanks to the recent 1.6″ of rain. We’re growing 180′ each of King Richard and Lincoln, fast-growing fall leeks, 360′ of King Sieg and 1080′ of the wonderful winter-hardy Tadorna. We’ve just got about 400′ of Tadorna left to plant. Maybe tomorrow we’ll get finished.

Leek Seedlings earlier in spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Leek seedlings in spring 2012, our usual method.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Usually we grow our leek seedlings outdoors in a nursery bed. We reckoned to sow 24′ each of the fall leeks, 48′ of King Sieg and 144′ of Tadorna on 3/21, and repeat this on 4/27 as a back-up. March had so much rain we couldn’t sow outdoors, so we used open wood flats, sowing the rows close together. Our flats are 12″ by 24″. To get the same number of plants, we sowed 6 rows across and needed a total of 20 flats. Quite space-consuming! The greenhouse couldn’t contain them along with all the other starts we have at that time of year, so we put the freshly sowed flats directly in the cold frames. Our logic was that the coldframe would be at least as warm as the conditions they would have had in the nursery bed. This worked well. There was coldframe congestion, which would have been even harder if we hadn’t been losing so many flats of broccoli to various beasts!

Leek seedlings. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Leek seedlings.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

On 4/27 we were able to make the second sowing in the outdoor nursery bed. The strange part of the tale is that we don’t seem to need them! Using flats has given us a much better survival rate than the nursery bed used to (sometimes it’s a challenge dealing with the weeds that pop up and outgrow the slow leeks.) We even seem to have had too many plants in the twenty flats. I’m strongly considering switching over to deliberate use of flats next year. I think we could even sow fewer flats (reducing the coldframe congestion). A disaster has produced a better method! Our, our creativity when faced with a disaster has produced a better method.

With our “new” method, we still put the seedlings in small buckets of water to make the roots stick together for easier planting.

Here’s my description from Sustainable Market Farming (c) Pam Dawling and New Society Publishers:

The ideal size for transplanting is between a pencil lead and a pencil in thickness. We plant at 6″ (15 cm) spacing, with four rows to a 48″ (1.2 m) bed. People wanting really huge leeks use wider spacings. Leeks can also be planted in clumps of four to six, either at 10–12″ (25–30 cm) in-row spacing for easier hoeing or at 6″ (15 cm) for smaller bunching leeks. We use a special planting technique for our bare root transplants, in order to develop long white shanks, which are prized more than the equally edible green parts. A similar technique can be used for seedlings from flats or plugs. We find it efficient to divide the crew up and specialize in one part of the job.

Chapter 52, Leek diagram

First, if the soil is dry, water it well, preferably more than an hour ahead. Then one person makes parallel V-shaped furrows, 3″ (8 cm) deep, along the bed. Next, a couple of people make holes 6″ (15 cm) apart in the furrows. Tools for this job include hoe handles, purpose-bought “dibbles” or dibblers, or ones homemade from broken digging fork handles, with the end sharpened to a point. The tool needs to have a diameter of 1½–2″ (4–5 cm). The depth of the holes is determined by the height of the transplants, and is likely to need to be 3″ (8 cm) or more. If the holes cave in, you need to water the soil more before proceeding. Meanwhile another person digs up some of the transplants from the nursery bed and transfers them to a small bucket containing an inch or so of water. We make useful little buckets from one-gallon (four-liter) plastic jugs with the top cut off. A rope handle knotted into holes at the top of the new bucket makes it easy to carry. Resist any temptation to trim either the roots or the tops of the leeks.

To transplant, take a leek, shake it free from its neighbors and decide whether to plant it. Discard the ones thinner than pencil leads. If the plant is a good size and looks healthy, twirl it as you lower it into the hole to prevent the roots folding back on the plant and pointing at the sky — they need to grow downwards. This works best if the roots are still wet and muddy from the water bucket. Bobbing the plant up and down as you settle it in the hole will help a transplant that has slightly bunched roots. If at first you don’t succeed, remove the plant from the hole, dip it back in the water and try again. Soon you will develop this quirky planting skill, and will be able to move along the row at a good clip. Ideally the tops of the leaves will poke out of the furrow, not more.Get the depth of the hole-making adjusted to suit the prevailing plant height. This creates the depth for growing a long white shank. Surprising as it may sound, it is not necessary or desirable to fill the holes with soil (you don’t want to bury the seedlings). The soil fills in naturally as the plants become tall enough to survive the depth.

Next someone gently waters each hole, either from a low-pressure hose, watering can or using an overhead sprinkler, once everyone else is out of range. The goal is to water the plant roots, adding only a little soil to each hole. The shelter of the hole helps the plant get over the transplant shock, and because leeks have slender tough leaves, they do not lose a lot of water by transpiration. This means that transplanting in quite hot weather is possible, as is transplanting in the mornings.

Onto a completely different subject: the 17-year cicadas. I heard a radio interview and read an article in a local paper, The Hook, about Jackson Landers the Charlottesville author of Eating Aliens, with whom I shared the platform at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March. He spoke about eating the cicadas (not his usual quarry, because these are native insects, not aliens). He’s also on YouTube. He inspired me to try one (given that we only get the chance once every 17 years). I ate it straight up, after rinsing. I chose one that looked recently dead. It wasn’t unpleasant – a mild flavor and a creamy texture. I did wish I’d removed the wings and legs first. I spat out the fibrous bits, but it was no worse than an over-mature snap peas pod. The adult cicadas are dying off now, and the decibel level has dropped.