One of the things I love most about farming is the ability to let nothing go to waste.
An example of this is something called garlic scapes. When a garlic plant gets close to maturity, it sends out a seed stalk. This is called a scape. The scape must be pinched off, or the plant will stop growing and the garlic bulb will not develop underground. While some farmers simply toss aside the scapes, this part of the plant can be used in cooking just as garlic can. It has more of a bite than a garlic clove but is equally delicious.
We may be bringing to market an unplanned crop by-product of our own. Over the winter, our acre of land was planted in rye and peas. This combination of cover crop not only kept the ground covered, but it also added nitrogen and helped suppress weed growth. At the end of winter, cover crops are typically cut back and turned into the soil. We left a small patch, however, because the young pea shoots happen to be very tasty. Keep an eye out, because we may be bringing some to market as a delicious addition to a spring salad mix!
Our greenhouse is full and we are anxious to move to the field with our warm season plants! Within the next two weeks, we’ll be busy hardening off our tender tomato, pepper and melon transplants, but in the meantime let me tell you how things are going for us in the greenhouse this year.
Our vegetable transplants are doing great this year, especially since switching to a new organic soil media–McEnroe’s Premium Organic Potting Soil (http://www.mcenroeorganicfarm.com/composting/potting). This mix has organic compost in it and produces beautiful, healthy transplants without the need for supplemental liquid fertilizers. We prefer this mix to the Sunshine grow mix we were using last year, which had minimal nutrients and needed to be amended with weekly applications of fish emulsion–a stinky mess! Also, we were getting a strange “fish film” on the surface of the media, which I believed disrupted water penetration through the plug cell. Producing healthy transplants is essential for the success of our market garden. Strong, healthy transplants are better able to withstand pressure from diseases and insects, are less likely to experience transplant stress, and more likely to establish quickly in the field, leading to a timely harvest. When the seeds are sown in the greenhouse in a good quality potting mix, they develop in time and are ready to go by the date on the seed package. The McEnroe mix is currently not available locally, however (if you know otherwise tell me!), so we order it through 7 Springs Farm based in Check, VA, and pick up two times a year in Marshall, NC. (side note—7 Springs Farm is starting Knoxville deliveries–contact Ron if you are interested in getting in on a bulk order: http://www.7springsfarm.com/).
Besides transplant fertility, one of our challenges is teaching proper watering. It seems so simple, but it takes a bit of experience to get a good grasp on water needs. Too much water and you could be promoting root rotting pathogens, fungus gnats and shore flies, and suffocating the roots by depriving them of oxygen. Too little water and, well, you know what happens! As the transplants get bigger and the roots fill the cells of the plug trays, they require more water. Also, the days are growing warmer, and we find some days we need to water twice–once in the morning and again in the mid afternoon. My favorite method to determine whether or not a plug tray needs water is to hand weigh it. A light flat means it’s time to water! This method requires some experience to literally “get the feel” for the weight of a properly hydrated flat. Another method that works with well-developed plugs that are nearly ready for field planting is to pull a plug out. You can then look at the plug and see if it is dry. With warm weather and nearly-ready transplants, we need to pay attention that we are watering thoroughly. One pass of the watering wand is not enough at this stage in the game, especially if the transplants are showing signs of wilting. I usually go over 3 times, or until I clearly see water coming out of the hole in the bottom of the flat. Then I feel the heavy weight of the flat for further satisfaction.
A word on pests: the pest we battle the most are western flower thrips. They especially love to hang out in my Galia melon flowers. (Usually, you don’t want your transplants to flower in the greenhouse, but these plants are reserved for my laboratory work and I need to repeatedly harvest leaves from them). A bit of a conundrum as I am beginning to realize these plants are thrips (and whitefly) magnets! And they will move onto tomatoes and pepper plants, so sometimes a little biocontrol is warranted. Once I see thrips damage, I look for thrips. When I find a few thrips, I order biocontrol. I realized pretty early with organic growing that it is important to ALWAYS be looking for damage and pests every time you enter the greenhouse, because these critters and small and can go unnoticed–until the populations explode and you are passed the window for effective biocontrol. We order sachets of predatory mites, Neoseiulus (Amblyseius) cucumeris, which attack the larvae and eggs of western flower thrips. Another reason to order as soon as you see thrips is because orders are only shipped out one or two days a week from most insectaries, and can take up to a week to arrive–enough time for your problem to get a whole lot worse. And remember, these critters are living and you need to apply them as soon as they arrive. They come packed in bran, so to determine whether or not your mites are active and alive, use a hand lens or just pour some bran in the palm of your hand and watch it move!
As the interns make their plans, the cool season crops in the market garden are slowly beginning to show promise. Most of our crop is in the ground and doing well. Pea tendrils are reaching out of the soil, brassicas are out-competing weeds, and the potatoes were just planted last week. However, the beginning of the season is not coming without challenges.
Our soil, while of fairly high quality due to having a cover crop for the past few seasons, is phosphorus deficient and bone meal was applied to all transplants when they went in the ground. Luckily, the transplants aren’t showing any signs of deficiency now.
Along with nutrient deficiencies, the rye cover crop from last fall is not wanting to go away. We’ve been working hard to stay ahead of the weeds and give our crops an opportunity to out-compete the weeds. This season, we’re applying a heavy layer of straw around the base of the plants. This should help prevent light from getting to weeds and also keep the soil moist and cool.
The weather so far has been in our favor. Without an irrigation system in our cool season plot, we’ve been relying on rain to keep the crop hydrated. The recent strong winds, however, have had a habit of blowing our straw cover around a bit. In the past few weeks, the weather has been beautiful for working mornings on the farm. The last frost date is almost past, which means our warm season crops can get started.