What’s been going on!
The glorious weather is gone but it was amazing to be in the high 30’s on Saturday morning this late in the spring. We took great advantage of the last coolish days to give the blueberries a final weed eating and hand pruning, ready for the pickers. The first small batch of berries were harvested on Monday, second pass through today, they look great! With the impending heat it will be all hands on deck next week for sure.
Almost all the peppers are now in the ground, Jennie and Liz did a great job, helped by the soil moisture being just right for cutting the furrows in the no-till area which resulted in maybe the best planting conditions we have ever had. There are many difficulties in working with small scale no-till most of which are equipment related. In large scale no-till they have the advantage of bigger tractors, more horsepower and heavier steel to manage the cover crop and to put plants in the ground and of course in conventional farm systems, herbicides to kill the cover crop.
In our system we have a small, light, tractor and lighter cutting disks to cut through the thick cover crop and open the planting furrows. The biggest problem we usually have is that the massive cover crop sucks all the water out of the soil making it so hard that the cutting implements can’t open the soil well. Not this year, following last week’s 3 inches of rain, it had dried out just enough to work beautifully yesterday. It makes the hand planting of the peppers twice as fast.
We are getting painfully close to finishing up the building project with the septic system finally going in this week (held up by too much rain) and the bathroom floor and fixtures being finished up by the end of the week too. All that leaves is trenching in the water line and the electrician finishing up the plugs and lights, we can then call for a final inspection and get the power turned on. Can’t happen soon enough, we have no business working on a building project during the busy spring season.
Picture of the Week
Happy pepper plants in no-till left and landscape fabric right
What’s going to be at the market? Continue reading
OK I think that we have rounded the corner. The peppers are all in and we have gotten caught up on flower planting as well- more zinnias, sunflowers, celosia as well as salvia, cosmos and dahlias. Betsy is excited about the new dahlias partly because they are a new crop for us and this is a new kind of dahlia as well. We even managed to finally get the basil in the ground and the celeriac too! Part of the reason that the peppers are such a job (beyond the fact that there are 17 one hundred foot long beds with 2200 plants) is that almost two thirds of them we plant using system called “no-till”. The less we turn the soil over the less organic matter we lose and the better the soil micro life likes it. Every time we till the soil it’s like opening the draft on a woodstove and causes the organic matter in the soil to decompose faster. Some crops we have to till for a good seed bed but others we can just plant directly into the remnants of the huge cover crops that we have grown over the winter. In effect we grow our fertilizer and mulch right in place instead of hauling it in. We have been using this technique for nine years now and have expanded it to include the late tomatoes, winter squash and are experimenting with some of the flowers. It is a tried and true method used by corn and soybean farmers but it is very new to vegetables. The slow part for us it that we have to plant by hand into a slit that the tractor makes in the cover crop residues, sometimes the slit is better than others and it takes at least twice a long to plant as the ones that we do on landscape fabric. In the long run though not only is it better for the soil but we have found that our sweet bell peppers perform better.
This week we also began a research project with some NC State grad students on beneficial insects. They are planting some tomatoes and certain cover crops down in our bottom field and will be seeing what good and bad bugs are attracted by the different crops. This is one of many projects that we have hosted over the years with NC State. It’s good for us because we are exposed to all kinds of new ideas and good for them because they get out onto real farms, which is different than doing projects on research stations. It is hard to create the kinds of crop mix and interactions that we have here back at the research station.
More weeding, trellising, and lots of irrigating going on. It is really beginning to feel like a drought year at least in the way we are having to water crops, but that can change quickly. The turkeys are doing great, trying to fly around now and we have put roosting bars into the Poultry Villa now so that they have a place to fly up to and sleep on.
Picture of the Week
The pepper field, hot peppers on the landscape fabric and the sweet bells in the greenish looking cover crop residue at the top of the field. In a couple of months it will look like the picture on page 62 of Magnolia Grill’s Not Afraid of Flavor
Quick newsletter this week, I am working on it Tuesday night late because I have to leave before the crack of dawn tomorrow for an all day meeting. Crazy week so far with lots of small but endless details to deal with including a “twilight tour” that we hosted last night to show the “Big Tops” to interested souls. We have the first of these multi-bay high tunnels in the southeast so our friend, fellow flower grower and the US distributor for them (Haygrove Tunnels) asked us to have an open house for interested growers. He came down from Pennsylvania to talk about them and we just mowed the place up. Got done way after “twilight” then up early to usual chores and move the turkeys into the Blueberry field. Followed by another huge storm and power outage (when I had planned to do the newsletter), at least our phone service came back on after 5 days. Isn’t technology grand! Looks like we could have a wet week yet to come.
The meeting tomorrow is a full day on no-till soil management. You may remember way back on week #10 I mentioned that we are using this system more and more on peppers, tomatoes, and winter squash. We think that it is the way of the future and we are continuing to try and refine our techniques. This looks to be an excellent workshop with big name (at least in farm circles) speakers from around the country presenting. I will let you know if we learn something earth shattering.
Picture of the Week
A riot of color. This is how Betsy grows those incredible Zinnias with long stems. This planting is over her head now so it will be gone soon and a new one has already started blooming.
Wow, what glorious weather! Summer must be right around the corner. This week as we were planting yet more Celosia flowers (this is an inside joke at the farm, Betsy always seems to have more Celosia to plant) Rett asked how many folks who had worked for us had gone on to start their own farms. I had to think about it for a bit and finally came up with at least six (mostly in this area) and another three or four who most likely will someday. That is out of the twenty plus people who have worked a full summer with us in the last ten years, that’s almost 50 percent! I always say that only about one percent of the folks that start out to farm actually make it past the first five years. Now some of my market gardener colleagues would view these new operations as competition but we view it as an indicator of sustainability. An indicator that we have developed a sustainable farming system that can thrive and hire quality people who can then go on, take parts of our system and create their own. An indicator that this kind of farming is truly being embraced and supported by consumers and communities all over the country. Remember that one of the three tenets of sustainability is the social component and we feel that in the long run it really is the glue that holds it all together. This is an example of why certified organic is really a narrow view of farming, it doesn’t take into account these sorts of social dimensions. Rett who is working on his own side market garden project had his first day at farmers’ market yesterday, so another one is launched!
You know that summer must be close when we start planting the winter squash! We planted 2500 feet of row to six different varieties including acorns, butternut, and my favorite Sweet Dumpling. We got the second planting of corn in and cultivated the first planting (not a great stand due to the cold soil temperatures) More sunflowers and other warm season flowers too. Finally the late spring cover crops began to bloom and so we have started to plant the no-till peppers and late tomatoes. We roll down these huge cover crops, which kills them, and then we cut a slit into them and the soil then plant the transplants right into the mulch. By the end of today all of the peppers will be in the ground and we put the last planting of Cherokee Purple tomatoes in last Friday. The irrigation rolls out behind all of these new plantings as we are beginning to get dry and these little quarter inch rains just don’t do much, when the hot days come it will become critical quickly!
On a literary note, I knew last week that I had mangled Twain’s quote about cold weather in San Francisco. The quote actually goes “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”. Well I had several corrective e-mails and further conversations at market, including one that said he had used that statement about Portland or Seattle. This all peaked my interest and so I did a little research and it turns out that it is all an urban legend, there has never been any documentation that Twain ever said or wrote this quote. So I guess we where all wrong! None the less, the comparison to the generally cool temperatures in that part of California allowing ideal conditions to grow lettuce still holds.
Picture of the Week
Tough love, peppers planted directly into the rolled cover crops. Better for the soil and the sweet bell peppers
So busy yesterday that I couldn’t get this done until this morning (after chasing yet more roaming turkeys), see you at market!
The big pepper plant is today and I hope we are ready for it. It is a challenge this year as we are planting into maybe the most difficult field we have, as far as soil is concerned. This is the field that we call “the Top” as it is the highest point on the farm and the farthest away from everything. When we started going to Farmers’ Market in 1986 this was the only piece of ground that wasn’t planted to blackberries and raspberries so we turned it over and began the experiment with vegetables and cut flowers. My brother Jon was here at that time and vegetables were his area of expertise. He and Betsy borrowed a neighbors plow and turned over this far corner of the farm and found a mixed bag. The field is long and irregular in shape (you know those of use who are members of the straight line police hate that) and the soil changes from one end to the other. Marvelous sandy loam on the bottom end but the top end is the most difficult red clay we own, very slow to dry out and almost impossible to work into a good seed bed. Joann is still scarred from having to plant tomatoes into that red clay and having to stack what amounted to pieces of brick around the root balls. This spring, however, the beds worked up as nicely as they ever have so we don’t have to fight that problem, at least on half of the 1600 feet of pepper beds. The other half we always plant without tilling the soil, right into thick cover crop of grain rye and hairy vetch that we have killed and flattened down by rolling it. It is like growing our fertilizer and mulch right in place. After we roll it down we cut slits into the mulch and the soil, with the the tractor, to set the plants into. If it is too dry the cutting wheels can’t cut through. If it is too wet, especially in red clay, it can make a mess that is hard to plant into. With all of the rain in the last two weeks I am a bit worried that it could be a bit too wet. We’ll find out later today if that is the case! None-the-less Rachel and Will (the newest staff member) will be charged with carefully interpreting my diagram of which pepper varieties go where. Just like the tomatoes there is a strategy as to which ones like or will do better in the different soil types. The hot peppers definitely need to be in the warmer sandy loam soil while the more disease resistant sweet bells can stand up better to the red clay. No matter what it will be one at time until the over 2000 plants are tucked into the ground whether it be sandy or clayey.
Late graduation day for the turkeys this week. Usually we start letting them out to get used to the idea at three weeks of age. This year because we got them earlier and it has been cold we just let them out yesterday for the first time. Now five weeks old and full of extra energy from being cooped up they have been acting up already! We pull one of the shelters up in front of the brooder building, about five feet away and then put up some chicken wire between the two. There is a ramp/door on the front of the brooder so they can come in and out. Usually they are very tentative and take a day or so to get used to going out, into the new shelter, and eating grass. These guys came out and started flying over the chicken wire almost immediately. I had to chase some down into the woods to catch them. We clipped the wing feathers on these bad actors after they flew out a second time. I hope we can get them calmed down or it will be a long summer of rounding up escapees.
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Tentative about the outdoors just before going wild in flight
Blackberry winter is what my father always called these times in late spring when we get abnormally cool periods. Not really abnormal as it seems to happen every year, and it is when the blackberries are blooming along the roadsides. We were in the high 30’s on Monday morning and all of the crops, except for the lettuce maybe, are looking skyward wondering when the heat will come and make them bust out in profusion. Another Mother’s Day and graduation upon us and Betsy is wondering just when all those flowers will start to bloom too. There is a bloom here and there just teasing her and the plants are looking really good and full of buds. This is the story the beginning of each May when the big question from Weaver Street, graduates, parents of graduates, brides and others is “When will you have more flowers?”, we just shrug and say probably the week after Mothers Day. It does seem to be exaggerated this year due to the tremendous cold snap at Easter, it really made a lot of crops just stop and it has taken some time for them to get rolling again.
The last big hurdle is in front of us this week. Pepper planting. Now that the tomatoes are in and looking really great, the last of the large plantings is upon us. From here on we only plant a few beds a week and never are they as important to the whole farm as the big pepper array is. Twenty two varieties this year including a few new ones. The best part is we are in one of the best fields we have. Great soil and sun, the last time we had peppers here (2002) it was a superb crop. The plants look as good as they ever have too. Good germination and they have grown well and look very uniform. Sometimes, especially with the hot peppers, germination can be poor and then they can take forever to get going. The last few years we have gotten into the pattern of planting the peppers in two stages. The first half go into raised beds covered with black landscape fabric which warms up the soil a bit faster. We put the hot peppers and some of the finicky sweet ones into these beds, I think they need the additional boost the warmer soil gives them. In the second planting stage, all of the red bells, and half of the yellow and orange bells, we plant “no-till” into the remains of a huge cover crop of rye and hairy vetch. There are many reasons why we do it this way but better long term soil management and less disease on the peppers are the main ones. We have been experimenting/working with this system since 1995 and each year we refine it. This year is exciting as we have new tractor implements that we hope will make it really easy to plant into the thick residue from the cover crops. Again this spring we may have to wait another week to get them in the ground because it is impossible to kill the cover crop organically until the hairy vetch is really blooming. Like everything else, it is delayed from all of the cool weather. Once the rye has sent out its seed heads and the hairy vetch is in full bloom we can just roll down this mass of plant material which crimps the stems and they give up the ghost and die. If they are not blooming then, even with the rolling, they have a will to live and make a seed that allows them to re grow which then makes them a pesky weed in the peppers. Patience is the key, they began blooming nicely this week so next week will be just fine.
Picture of the Week
Preparing the pepper beds for planting, no-till on left, tilled with fabric going on, on the right.
Undoubtedly the event of the week was the Slow Food potluck here at the farm on Sunday. I was a beautiful sunny late spring day with temperatures in the 70’s and a breeze. Betsy and I had mowed the place up and we had set up tables in what we call “the stand” (formerly our Pick-Your-Own stand) which is under the shade of three huge tulip poplars and a willow oak. Looking out over the fields and gardens and right up next to the lettuce field and the fava beans. At 4:00 cars began to roll in and by 5:00 there was quite a large group assembled. The skies were getting fearsome looking and I ran in to check the radar, lots of red and purple! I ran back out, climbed on a chair and announced that everyone needed to grab their potluck dish and go down to our house. Just as everyone made it inside it began to dump rain, with thunder and lightning. Fortunately we had just put that living room addition onto the house this winter and have lots of kitchen counter and a dining table we can put lots of leaves in. The kitchen counters and the table were covered by food dishes and the food line snaked around the room like a conga line. In Slow Food parlance the local chapters are called conviviums as in convivial- “fond of feasting, drinking, and good company; social, jovial” we were certainly that! Great food made with local ingredients and I think that everyone was able to move around the house and visit with each other. As the rain stopped and people made their way back to their cars and home they also took short self guided tours of the farm. Not exactly as planned but fun still the same. We didn’t get a count of how many folks came but I can tell you we had over a hundred forks and there were four left unused! Someone said it should have been the picture of the week but I couldn’t get to my camera.
Not without some nervous pacing around, we managed to get all the peppers in the ground this past week, hallelujah! Wednesday the guys got all the black landscape fabric laid over the nine raised beds that I reserve for all the hot peppers which I think need the extra warm soil to do well and the fussier sweet peppers than need better drained soil. As I headed off to market they proceeded to plant all of those nine beds with 26 different varieties. That task alone of making sure that each variety is placed in the right location so we can know what it is and make it more efficient come picking time. I leave them a detailed map of what goes where. That job done we are only half finished planting. The rest of the plants, all of the red bells and most of the yellow and oranges are planted directly into killed cover crops. A slower process and we were held up by wet soil from what is beginning to feel like rain every other day. Finally yesterday it seemed like it was dry enough and we needed to get them in before the next rain. With speed and precision the three of us went about it and all went well, another nine beds all tucked into the mulch. In total nearly 2400 hundred plants and they all got rained in last night, perfect!
Picture of the Week
Dan and Cov poking the last peppers plants in the ground
What a glorious morning, just came back in from my morning perambulation (letting the turkeys out, turning on irrigation, general perusal of the place) and the 50 degree temperature that greeted me was almost shocking. Thank goodness we are near the longest day of the year (and the first day of summer) because this waking up at 5:00 a.m. is not natural. I always wake with the light and it is just not right to be up this early in the day! The change of seasons is truly upon us as we are mowing down the spring vegetable and flower crops and planting more of what will be the late summer crops. Under the tiller go the beet, carrot, spinach and lettuce beds making room for more zinnias, sunflowers and celosia. We covered the last bay of the Big Tops last week and the guys built their last tomato trellis of the year. Today we will plant the last round of tomatoes, the ones for August and September. We do this planting no-till into a rolled down cover crop of grain rye and this year Austrian winter peas, just like all of the sweet peppers. When we plant the sweet peppers we are always pushing the front end of using this no-till system because the cover crops are just barely mature enough to kill and the soil is still almost too cool under the insulating layer of mulch. With the late tomatoes it is just right because the cover is well dead and the soil is warm but not hot. Most farmers will plant their late tomatoes into white plastic in an attempt to keep the soil and the plants a little cooler, besides my disdain for using plastic mulch, we already have those conditions using the no-till. Even with these more ideal planting conditions we only plant a limited selection of varieties because tomatoes don’t pollinate well in the hot nights of July and August so we only plant five beds and four varieties, a red, a pink, a yellow and of course Sun Gold cherries.
We really need some rain right now, not only is the pond going down but it is time to seed the summer cover crops. As I was tilling yesterday the soil is getting very dry making it hard to incorporate the crop residues and difficult to germinate the new seeds. This is beginning to look like last year where it was almost impossible to get the summer cover crops going. Now that blueberry picking is almost over we are turning our attentions to catching up on all this planting, trellising and spring crop clean up, hopefully today we will also start the pepper trellising as those poblanos are getting tall and susceptible to being knocked over in a storm. Friday we will begin the annual red onion harvest another sign of summer as right on cue the onion tops are flopping over, telling us it is time to get them out of the ground too. As Betsy says, it’s like being a chicken on a hot plate, how fast can you dance?
Picture of the Week
Dan marking the beds, Cov planting celosia in the former spring lettuce beds