Friday, September 30, 2011

As the curtain slowly closes on the summer garden and the autumn garden edges towards its glory, I’d like to offer thanks. No, not a religious thanks for a summer of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables. But thanks to a person, the person who bred Sungold cherry tomato.
Anyone who is not familiar with Sungold tomato should be. It’s sweet but not cloying, and has a beautiful persimmon-orange color. I once grew over 20 varieties of cherry tomatoes, including Sungold, for a magazine article. Mostly, the tomatoes were ho-hum, with the exception of Sungold, its hardly known sibling Suncherry, and Gardener’s Delight and Sweet Million. Of the great-tasting lot, Sungold was the best, which is why so many people grow it.
With all that beauty and flavor, Sungold is not hard to grow. It starts bearing relatively early each season and bears heavily all season long.
As testimonial to Sungold’s flavor and other qualities, it’s sometimes listed along with heirloom varieties. It’s not an heirloom. It is an F1 hybrid variety, which means I can’t save seed myself to plant each year. Not if I want Sungold, as opposed to a tomato that hints of Sungold. Ever since Sungold was introduced, gardeners have been trying to develop an open-pollinated form, that is, one that would be “true” from seed.
So who was it that gave us Sungold? The only information I could sleuth out was that Sungold was developed in the 1990s by Japan’s Tokita Seed Company. It seems that the Japanese enjoy sweet tomatoes. It seems that so do many Americans.
Too bad about Sungold because saving vegetable and flower seeds provides such primal satisfaction, and saves some money. Every year I save seeds from such vegetables as Shirofuma edamame, Sweet Italia pepper, and Ventura celery.
Especially satisfying are the popcorn and polenta seeds I’ve saved over the years. Corn, after all, is a staple, a grain that we can each grow in our own backyards. It’s more suited to backyard production than other grains because its grains (kernels) remain attached in profusion in a neat, husk-wrapped cylinder. That’s perfect as a cultivated grain for us humans for easily gathering at the end of the season although not so good for a wild grain because they are poorly dispersed. Corn’s ancestor, teosinte, which originated in Mexico, was a better wild plant, with each primitive ear hosting just a few kernels that had plenty of elbow room to grow once they dropped to the ground and sprouted.
Popcorn is also especially satisfying because it’s a fun food. Today I harvested two beds of Dutch Butter popcorn and one bed of Pink Pearl popcorn. These two varieties, in my opinion, taste better than commercial varieties I’ve tasted even if they don’t puff up as large when popped. The white or pink ears also look very pretty hanging all winter from a rafter in the kitchen.
I started growing and saving polenta corn seeds a few years ago after being given a couple of mature ears of Otto File, an heirloom Italian variety whose name translates to “eight row,” which it has. The kernels have an orange tinge and, once ground -- especially if ground fresh -- cook up into a delectable polenta of distinctive flavor. This variety was almost lost, and I was given it as part of an effort to maintain it.
The one problem with growing popcorn and polenta corn is that each variety has to be sufficiently isolated so that no cross-pollination occurs. They also have to be isolated from sweet corn, which I also grow. So I planted sweet corn in my north vegetable garden, and clumps of Otto File in the south field between the dwarf apple trees.
The two popcorn varieties go into the south vegetable garden. Evidently, they were not sufficiently isolated because Dutch Butter sometimes has some pink kernels and Pink Pearl sometimes has some white kernels. Even the mutts -- Pink Dutch Pearl Butter? -- taste very good.
I must mention Lee. No, not me, but the recent tropical storm that followed on the heels of hurricane Irene. Tropical Storm Lee brought a surprising amount of water so that extensive flooding again occurred, the second worst I’ve ever seen. 
A prominent legacy in these days following the storm are mosquitoes, hordes of them. It is almost impossible -- no, it is impossible -- to go outdoors unprotected. I’m relying on my mesh Bug Baffler and, to a lesser extent, the effective deet alternatives picaridin (found in Natrapel) and lemon eucalyptus.
I’m hoping that the abundance of mosquitoes will build up populations of their predators so that next year will bring even fewer mosquitoes than usual. Bats and purple martins, contrary to popular lore, are not particularly effective at reducing mosquito populations. Most effective are dragonflies as well as some other insects (including the larvae of some species of mosquitoes!), small crustaceans, and fish. Mosquitoes can also be controlled by treating their watery breeding grounds with the bacteria Bacillus thurengiensis var. israelensis or B. sphaericus, both of which are relatively nontoxic to everything except mosquito larvae. As natural waters recede, draining containers and other open sources of water will also limit mosquito numbers.
A couple of frosts or a heavy frost, to 28°F. will do in some mosquitoes (Aedes). But for all the beauty and abundance of the autumn garden. could I really hope for that which would put a quick end to summer’s vegetables?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I’m frantically getting ready for spring. Mostly, that means making compost. Compost piles assembled now, while temperatures are still relatively warm, heat up right to their edges, cooking quickly and killing most resident weed seeds, pests, and diseases. Fortunately, plenty of organic materials are available to feed compost piles this time of year.

I like to think of my compost pile as a pet (really, many pets, the population of which changes over time as the compost ripens) that needs, as do our dogs and cats, food, water, and air. Right now, I’ve been feeding my pet corn stalks, lettuce plants that have gone to seed, rotten tomatoes and peppers, and other garden refuse.

No, I’m not checking to make sure that each leaf, stalk, and fruit is free of pests before it gets tossed on the growing pile, as is suggested by some people. Look closely enough, and you’d find that just about everything would have some hostile organism on it. Given sufficient time and heat, a well-fed compost pile should take care of such potential problems. Joseph Jenkins, in his excellent (and fun-to-read) book, The Humanure Handbook, quotes research showing complete human pathogen destruction in composts that reach 145°F for one hour, 122°F for one day, or 109° F for one week. The same should be true for plant pathogens and pests. For decades, I’ve tossed everything and anything into my compost piles and never noticed any carry over of pest or disease problems.

Heat and temperature can also do in weed seeds. Survival depends on the kind of weed: Research shows that a couple of weeks at 114°F kills pigweed seeds while only about a week at that temperature killed nightshade seeds. Generally, though, temperatures of 131°F for a couple of weeks kills most weed seeds.

Heat and time aren’t the only threats faced by pathogens, pests, and weed seeds in the innards of my compost piles. In addition to heat, various antagonistic organisms -- including friendly (to us) bacteria, fungi, and nematodes -- stand ready to gobble them up.

Speaking of weeds, they also become compost food. What sweet revenge it is to toss a mugwort, creeping Charlie, and woodsorrel onto a growing compost pile and then get them back as dark, rich compost.

Other organic materials that go into the compost piles are a mix of goldenrod, bee balm, grasses, yarrow, and whatever else is growing in my south field. I cut it with a scythe, let it wilt for a day, then gather it up. Also some horse manure, which I like mostly for the wood shavings that provide bedding for the horses. The manure itself furnishes nitrogen, which compost pets need for a balanced diet -- 20 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen but no need to be overly exacting because it all balances out in the finished compost. Lacking manure, soybean meal is another nitrogen-rich feed, as are grass clippings and kitchen waste.

Feeding a variety of compost foods provides a smorgasbord of macro- and micronutrients to the composting organisms and, hence, to my plants. Every few inches I also sprinkle on some soil, to help absorb nutrients and odors, and some ground limestone, to lower acidity of our naturally increasingly acidic soils, and to improve the texture of the finished compost.

Compost made this year gets used next year, mostly around now. It was too late to plant a late vegetable crop in the bed I just cleared of old corn stalks, so I’m blanketing that bed beneath an inch deep in compost. The same goes for a bed in which grew an early planting of zucchini.

Actually, any beds that get cleared before the end of this month will get, before I lay on  that blanket of compost, a dense sprinkling of oat seeds. The seeds will germinate and the seedlings will thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter. This “cover crop,” as it is called, protects the soil surface from pounding rain and insulates the lower layers. The oat roots latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down through the soil. And as the roots grow, they nudge soil particles this way and that, giving the ground a nice, crumbly structure that garden plants like so well.

Beds cleared after October 1st get only compost, which is almost as good. In all honesty, I’ve never noted any difference in the soil or vegetable plant growth from using compost alone as opposed to compost plus a cover crop. The abundance of compost, in either case, might trump the effect of the cover crop. The green cover does look nice going into winter.

Turnips and winter radishes planted 6 weeks ago are growing well and need thinning so that each plant has space to swell up its fat, tasty root.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The nice thing about living in a flood plain is its fertile, rock-free soil. Here on the flood plains of the Wallkill River, I can dig a 3-foot-deep post hole in about 5 minutes. The soil here also drains well, allowing me to plant even during heavy rains.

The problem with flood plains is that they flood. Hurricane Irene recently submerged the farmden here with anything from 4 feet of water, along the road, to no feet of water, in back, where the vegetable gardens are. The ground elevation also drops going into the south field, where I paddled along on August 29th in a kayak inspecting pawpaw and dwarf apple trees, and grape and hardy kiwifruit vines.

Thankfully, lives and homes here generally fared well through the storm; what of the plants? As I write (August 31st), persimmon, chestnut, black walnut, and filbert trees that I planted are still ankle deep in standing water. Farm fields a mile down the road also are still inundated or, at least, have soggy soil.

The combination of heavy rains and winds loosened the grip of tree roots onto the soil. Some trees blew over. Some are wobbly in the soil. It may be possible to right and stake the former, and just stake the latter, if the trees are not too big. After a year or more, new roots will grow to provide sufficient support without the stakes.
The other problem with wet soil is that the water displaces air. Roots need to breathe. Without air, roots don’t function. They then can’t even take up water so may show the same symptoms -- leaves dying and drying up beginning at their edges -- as do plants suffering from drought. Fruits also may drop prematurely and various nutrient deficiencies may show up in the form off color leaves.

So the faster the water table recedes down into the soil the better. I’ll be watching and waiting; not much else anyone can do.

The weird thing about hurricane Irene is the clear sunny days that have followed. Look out any rear window in my house at ground that wasn’t flooded, and it’s business as usual. The plants there got a good soaking and and then had bright, sunny days. What else could a plant ask for?

The bed with the last planting of corn needs to be harvested and cleared, as does a bed of bush green beans and edamame. Once cleared, these beds will snuggle in beneath a one-inch blanket of compost (yearly additions of which have contributed to the soil’s excellent drainage). They are then ready to be seeded for late crops of spinach, radishes, and lettuce, planted with waiting transplants of baby bok choy and lettuce, or planted to a soil-improving and protecting cover crop of oats and peas.

My vegetables were not exposed to flooding; not so in other vegetable plots. If the flooding was only from rainfall on-site, the only thing to do is to watch and wait for the water to recede and roots to take a deep breath. Flooding from overflow of streams and rivers poses other problems.

Think of all the detritus carried along by that floodwater. And then try to imagine some of the stuff you didn’t think of. The major problems I see are floating gasoline and diesel cans and the major problem I smell is of the stuff in those cans. What I don’t see or smell is whatever is running off farm fields and the overflow from sewage treatment plants, not to mention harmful chemicals and bacteria.

Any of these substances could contaminate flooded vegetables, especially vegetables that were ready to be harvested, by lodging onto leaves and fruits and working their way into pores. Root vegetables would be least contaminated. Hardest to clean and most subject to contamination would be leafy vegetables. Easiest to clean would be vegetables with hard skins, such as winter squashes. A warm solution of Chlorox in water used as a wash or a soak should kill surface bacteria of those vegetables that can tolerate such treatment.

Monday, September 12, 2011

For the past couple of months, I’m not so sure that my duck knows that she’s a duck. She and another female duck once shared a drake, and they all lived together in their own “duckingham palace.”

Sometime after the other female and the drake were taken by a predator, probably a fox or coyote, I thought our remaining female might enjoy some company at night. So I coaxed her to take up nightly residence with our three chickens -- a rooster and two hens -- who have their own house (“chickingham palace?,” actually more palatial than duckingham palace).

Not only has Ms. Duck moved in with the chickens at night but she also wanders around with the flock by day. Her special companion is the rooster, especially since the two chicken hens decided to spend much of their days sitting on imaginary eggs. Neither hen has laid a real egg for over a month. So the female duck and the rooster stroll together each day, gobbling up insects, weed seeds, and some vegetation, except, of course, in the fenced confines of the vegetable gardens. I’ve even caught them in flagrante delicto.

The duck, being a duck, enjoys water. Her idea of a pond is the 3-foot-diameter children’s sandbox repurposed with water that we’ve provided for her bathing pleasure. During the bath, the rooster stands nearby, watching and seemingly trying to figure out what’s going on with this water-loving belle.
This season has seen both an abundance and a lack of some other, smaller creatures here on the farmden. In July, I saw a few Japanese beetles and braced for an onslaught, ready to repel them with a spray of neem extract or kaolin clay if things got ugly. Although I heard about the beetles descending in hordes on some other gardens near and far, I’ve hardly seen any all summer. Last summer’s drought should have cut down numbers of grubs that hatched last year to become beetles this summer but biological systems are not always so simple.

Making up for a lack of Japanese beetles is the present abundance of yellowjackets, reflecting good weather conditions, for them, in spring. Perhaps it was the earliness of the last frost, perhaps it was the alternating bouts of wet and dry conditions. In contrast to honeybees, yellowjacket colonies do not overwinter; only the queens do. But the bigger the colony this summer, the more young queens develop to fly off and find winter quarters to build up colonies next summer. These insects start out the season feasting on high protein foods but have now shifted to sweets.

This shift has made berry-picking very difficult and the insects are capable of breaking through thin skins so are actually robbing a significant part of the late summer raspberries. A close eye is needed to avoid harvesting an angry yellowjacket along with a berry. Early in the morning, they are especially grumpy when wakened from their resident berry.

Yellowjackets are also a problem on compost piles in progress. Fresh additions to the pile, especially sweet ones such as melon rinds, quickly need covering with a layer of hay or manure. This hides the food and and gets it composting.

Although yellow jackets are beneficial in the garden for eating plant pests, their present habits outweigh the good, for me, at least. (I’m also allergic to their stings.) I seek and destroy nests with torch or insecticide.

Grapes have tougher skins than raspberries, skins that can resist yellowjackets. That is, until a bird takes a peck or a couple of diseased berries split open.

In anticipation of problems with yellowjackets, honeybees, birds, insects, and diseases, earlier this summer we enclosed 100 bunches of grapes in white delicatessen bags. Not that all unbagged grapes get attacked. But the bagged bunches can be left hanging the longest and, most of the time, we tear open the bags to reveal perfect bunches of grapes.

The first grapes of the season, Somerset Seedless, ripened in mid-August. This variety is another fine variety bred by Wisconsin dairy farmer cum grape breeder Elmer Swenson. The fruits of his labors literally run the gamut from varieties, such as Edelweiss, having strong, foxy flavor (the characteristic flavor component of Concord grapes and many American-type grapes) to those with mild, fruity flavor reminiscent of European-type grapes. Somerset Seedless is more toward the latter end of the spectrum and, of course, it’s seedless. Swenson red and Briana, which should be ripe as you read this, are more in the middle of the spectrum.

As you might guess from Elmer’s location, all the varieties that he bred are very cold-hardy.

Thanks, Elmer.

Monday, September 5, 2011

This workshop will cover what fruits are best and easiest to grow, and how to grow them. We will also sample such delectables as pawpaws, persimmons, Asian pears, lingonberries, and hardy kiwifruit.
Date and time: October 2nd, from 2 pm until 5 pm
Location: Lee Reich's farmden/garden at 387 Springtown Rd., New Paltz, NY
Cost: $40
Limited space. Register by sending a check to Lee at the above address. Questions? Email, or call 845-255-0417.
(The last few workshops filled up so people had to be turned away, so please register early if you want to be assured of a spot in this workshop.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Seaside and woo woo are permeating in my farmden this afternoon. Both can be easily explained, in spite of the fact that I’m 80 miles or so from the nearest seashore and that I am pretty grounded. One, simple word explains it all: kelp.
My plants are generally well fed. The vegetable gardens get a yearly blanket of a one-inch depth of compost which releases myriad nutrients as it decomposes. Trees and shrubs get annual blankets of wood chips, hay, or leaves which, likewise, release nutrients
during decomposition. Anything that needs extra nitrogen gets some soybean meal. All the organic materials over all these years has built up sufficient reserves of nitrogen so that extra nitrogen is rarely needed.

Still, plants need about 16 nutrients for optimum health (and we humans likewise need at least that many, which, in turn, come from the plants we eat). Many of those nutrients, so-called micronutrients, are needed in minuscule amounts. The miscellany of ingredients -- orange peels from Florida, hay from my field, horse manure from a nearby stable, etc. -- no doubt contributes to a broad spectrum of nutrients in my compost, so my plants don’t need anything else. Probably.
And that’s where kelp comes in. Coming from the sea, kelp contains a wide range of nutrients. After all, way back when, our progenitors originated in the sea, right? Perhaps something is lacking in my compost.
And that’s where woo woo comes in. What’s woo woo? It’s reasoning that seems reasonable even though is lacks a very firm basis. If I were a farmer keeping an eye on my bottom line, could I justify the $100 worth of kelp I bought last weekend to use on my vegetable beds and beneath my fruiting trees, shrubs, and vines? Probably not. Being a farmdener gives me the luxury to take this extra step that
very well might be akin to hauling coals to Newcastle. It’s woo woo.
Speaking of woo woo, I had the opportunity last weekend to be part of a 3 member “debate” panel at the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming, summer conference in Amherst, Massachusets. Each of us panel members presented our approach to soil fertility and sustainabllity, followed by questions. I expounded (longer than I had expected) on how I build fertility from the top down using organic materials and avoiding soil disturbance, combining a reverence for both science and Mother Nature. Dave Jacke lobbied for agricultural systems based more heavily on perennial rather than annual crops, in so doing building and preserving soil and making good use of native fertility. Dan Kittredge promoted “Nutrient Dense” farming (see, an approach that, admirably, strives to grow food in ways that maximize nutrients, but woo woo-ably, assesses the nutrient status of crops in -- shall I generously say -- questionable ways.
Crop assessment in Nutrient Dense farming is with a refractometer, a hand-held instrument that measures the degree to which a liquid bends a ray of light. In gardening and farming generally, this hand-held device quickly assesses the concentration of sugar concentration in liquid squeezed out of a leaf, stem, or fruit. More sugar, more bending. So far so good.

The Nutrient Dense people, though, promote use of the refractometer for assessing mineral nutrients in that solution. Woo Woo. Minerals do have an effect on refraction but one that is far overshadowed by the far, far greater concentration of sugar in plant sap and fruit juice. Even if it did measure mineral nutrients, the reading would tell nothing specific about which of the 16 or so minerals were sufficient or deficient. And said readings would be expected to vary with plant part used and age of plant or plant part.
Despite the woo woo-ness of the Nutrient Dense approach, it’s been built up into an industry that helps you test for deficiencies and then sells materials for correcting them. Woo Woo.
That bit of woo woo-ness aside, the NOFA conference is an enlightening and uplifting event, one that I’ve attended and presented at for about 20 years. NOFA is one of a few organizations that has brought organic agriculture into the mainstream over the last 40 years. I remember almost 40 years ago, as a graduate student in soil science, when organic agriculture was generally pooh-poohed both in academia and in the field.
Each summer’s NOFA conference offers an array of workshops on topics ranging from baking bread to composting with earthworms to starting a food co-op to growing blueberries (one of my workshops) to growing salad greens. Presenters are equally diverse: agricultural researchers, homesteaders, suburban gardeners, lawyers, anyone and everyone. Plenty of fun activities are also offered for teenagers and younger children.
In addition to the annual summer conference, held in mid August, each state within the northeast holds an individual winter conference. See the website for links to state chapters. States and regions beyond the northeast hold similar conferences, one of my favorite being the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Farming ( conference.
These conferences are interesting and educational, and fun, even if each does have a bit of woo woo.
Hurricane Irene came and went. Floods came and went. Here's a couple of photos, one showing my temporarily riverfront property, which actually looks very pleasant except that the water isn't supposed to be there. The other photo is of me paddling among my chestnut filbert, persimmon, and espalier Asian pear trees. More on all this at a later date.