Aren’t farm tasks supposed to slow down in summer? Here’s are random thoughts about how our summer has progressed:
We decided after last year that we wouldn’t grow tomatoes in the outside market gardens again – we had about 20% of the production outside that we had in the high tunnel due to pathogen pressures. But what’s a farmer to do when the high tunnel is only 35’ wide x 78’ long and we grew tomatoes in most of its beds last summer? The answer we came upon was to purchase grafted heirloom tomatoes from an NC organic greenhouse. Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and German Johnson were grafted on to disease resistant root stock, and with a couple of inches of compost added to the beds following winter lettuce and spinach, we planted 48 plant trays in each of three beds. According to research at NC State, grafted heirloom tomatoes grown in high tunnels should yield 50% more than non-grafted heirlooms. Heirlooms have the taste that you remember from your grandparents’ garden, but because they are so big and juicy, they are prone to splitting. We have found with this year’s crop that we have fewer culls than last year, and we still have green foliage with good though slower flower and fruit set than earlier in the season (temperatures reach 110 degrees F on really hot days). So, so far, so good. Lee has processed most of the culls roasting them overnight on a low temperature and then peeled and cored to freeze for use in her healthy cooking classes. The demand for heirlooms far exceeds hybrid varieties, and the profit margins are significantly better as well.
Last year we were growing “Straight 8” cucumbers on the north bed of the high tunnel and were producing an abundance of very straight and long cucumbers. About the first of July, the plants looked like they had the measles – large yellow lesions on the leaves and a powdery edge. In a few days the entire plant declined, and we had to rip out the plants at the peak of their production. The culprit was a nasty disease, powdery mildew, which used to creep up from Florida around August but has been coming earlier and earlier due to warmer weather.
After hearing a talk about Cornell/NC State research trials on downy mildew resistant cucurbits, we bought seeds of the trial winner for disease resistance. It is an unnamed variety from Cornell – PMR 264 – it’s a cucumber not a Star Wars robot. Commonwealth Seeds near Charlottesville, VA is the grower and offers an excellent selection of seeds adapted to the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic which are open pollinated and organic. The results from our two beds in the high tunnel has been excellent from a disease resistance perspective with vigorous plant growth even into August, but the production has been spotty. A plethora of blooms have largely fallen off unpollinated – perhaps due to the heat inside the high tunnel but more likely due to poor pollination as bees are sparse inside on these hot days. We are still averaging harvests of over 40 pounds per every other day, though some of the cukes are short or misshapen from inadequate pollination.
According to research at West Virginia University by high tunnel guru, Lewis Jett, cucumbers are the number one most profitable high tunnel crop. Nevertheless, we are likely to experiment with this variety outside next summer for improved pollination. It will mean a slower start to the season but hopefully greater yield. The cucurbit trial continues this summer (see our participation in melons below), and we’ll be anxious for updates to see if there is any experience in growing other downy mildew resistant varieties successfully in a high tunnel. Otherwise, we’ll select a greenhouse variety or two that needs little or no pollination from Lewis Jett’s list of recommended varieties and take our chances on downy mildew.
• Muskmelon Trial
We have participated in a cantaloupe trial sponsored by Cornell, NC State, and Auburn Universities to test the downy mildew resistance of eight varieties. Only one of the eight is recommended for North Carolina: “Athena”, which accounts for 70 percent of the cantaloupes produced commercially in the state. All 8 varieties we tested developed alternaria leaf spot early in the season, but all but one of the varieties survived. None of the varieties grew vigorously, and all experienced fruit rotting problems. We use a refractometer to test the sweetness of the different varieties, and Athena scored the optimal 12 early in the harvest season. None of the varieties have been prolific producers. We are not experienced cantaloupe growers, and this research experience does not heighten our interest in growing cantaloupes in the future. The good news is that none of the varieties developed downy mildew.
• Other Summer Happenings:
- We have just completed grading for our second high tunnel which is supported by a “cost share” from the Natural Resources and Conservation Service/USDA. The high tunnel will be constructed in early September and will be located directly to the south of our first tunnel with the same dimensions and design.
- We have also received NRCS assistance to conduct a Conservation Assistance Program organic transition whole farm plan. The plan is being conducted by former Chatham/Orange County Extension Service agent and NC A&T State University researcher, Keith Baldwin, PhD. Keith is highly regarded and was awarded Carolina Farm Stewardship’s 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award. Keith is currently the Farm Services Coordinator for CFSA.
- We have recently begun providing produce to a group of independent restaurants in the Triangle through a collaboration with other farmers. We are one of a select group that pool our resources to serve this growing restaurant group.
- It seems early to be planting cabbage, bok choy, kale, broccoli, and collards in this heat, but with 60 to 85 days to maturity, it is important to get them in the ground to avoid freezing weather (especially for the broccoli and bok choy). We are using the written advice from sustainable farming guru, Pamela Dawling of Twin Oaks Farm near Charlottesville, author of Sustainable Market Farming. Pam suggests sowing rows of red or crimson clover about a month after planting around cabbage and broccoli to help crowd out winter weeds and to have a nitrogen fixing cover crop in place through the winter once harvest is complete.
The cooler mornings are enjoyable and we try to get most of the heavier work done before the heat sets in. Tomatoes and cucumbers are still producing in the high tunnel, Asian pears have just been harvested, the summer squash and winter squash are producing fewer fruit, and we are beginning to harvest recently sown arugula.
The bounty of fall will soon approach, and we can’t wait!