Archive for May, 2012

Many people have asked me what they can do to prevent their tomatoes from succumbing to disease. The first answer to protecting any of your crops from disease is to start with the soil. Have your soil tested and correct any imbalances with organic amendments. If your local feed store or garden supply can’t offer help with organic information, check with your state organic organization or Cooperative Extension Service. In Virginia, Countryside Organics and Seven Springs Farm are two sources of amendments. The two places I’ve used for my soil tests are Timberleaf Soil Testing and A&L Eastern Laboratories. Timberleaf results give suggestions for what product to add per 100 sq. ft. It is less expensive to have a test done at A&L. A&L gives great test results, but as usual with soil tests, their results tell you how much of each thing is needed (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, boron, etc) and you have to figure out what product to use and how much, since only a small percentage of that item is in the product. There are other labs and services out there that can be of help. It might be that the place you find to purchase supplies can help you interpret your test results. Dr. Mark Schonbeck, a friend of mine in Floyd, VA, can interpret soil tests and offer recommendations.

One problem with tomatoes is blossom end rot. When your tomatoes begin to ripen and you have a black spot at the end, that’s blossom end rot. If you look it up, the books will tell you that it is caused by a calcium deficiency, or too much water, or too little water. If you have had your soil tested you will know if there is a calcium deficiency. Another reason I’ve come to know is if there is a cold spell after I’ve set my tomatoes out. In that case, the first flush of tomatoes might have it, but the rest will be fine.  So, don’t get yourself too stressed if you see it. If it is calcium, well, you should have amended after your soil test. If it is too much rain, know the rain probably won’t last forever. If you’ve left those poor plants on their own in a dry time, get out the hose.

tomato before trimming-BLOG

tomato plant before trimming

The biggest problem here in the mid-Atlantic is blight. It doesn’t really matter to me the exact name or if it is early blight or late blight. The bottom branches of the plants begin to turn brown and die and it gradually works its way up the plant. The fungal spores that cause that are in the soil and the disease begins in the leaves that hang down and touch the soil. Furthermore, if the soil is bare under the tomatoes, when it rains, those spores are splashed onto the plants. Now is the time you can take preventative measures. Trim the lower branches of your plants so nothing hangs down and touches the soil, and mulch around the plants. You will need to come back in a couple weeks and trim your plants again because they will have put out more growth. It is hot and humid here in the summer and giving tomatoes a little breathing room will do wonders. Open up that space at the bottom and get the air flowing. Listen carefully, your tomatoes will be thanking you.  

tomato plant  trimmed and mulched-BLOG

tomato plant trimmed and mulched

Your disease prevention should have started last fall by planting cover crops. Cover crops do wonders adding organic matter to the soil with their roots and later with the biomass grown on top. That’s where your mulch can come from. Planting cereal rye in the fall provides you with the most mulch, but your tomatoes will be planted a little later, since you cut it in place when it sheds pollen and then wait two weeks to put in the tomatoes. Legumes, such as hairy vetch, crimson clover, or Austrian winter peas, can be cut earlier, allowing earlier transplanting of your tomatoes. The resulting mulch, however, is not as long lasting. The mulch in the picture of the tomato before trimming is hairy vetch that was so prolific when I cut it in the spring. Now it is disappearing fast and I added leaves on top to keep a mulch cover. Hairy vetch is highly recommended to precede tomatoes. These cover crop mulches are slow-release fertilizers for the tomatoes, or anything else they are mulching, as they compost in place. The mulches with the most carbon will compost more slowly, which is why the rye lasts longer than the legume mulch. My daughter plants sweet potatoes next to her tomatoes and they provide a living mulch to keep the soil from splashing.

Compost, of course, should be part of your soil fertility plan. It helps build the organic matter. Throwing some fertilizer at your tomatoes when you plant, thinking the more the better, might only result in lots of foliage and less fruit. If you do want to add something extra, wait until the plants have flowered. Keep in mind, if you walk into your local garden center which sells all sorts of chemicals, and ask them what to do for your tomatoes that are showing signs of disease, telling you about cover crops, organic matter, and mulch, if they even know about those things, is not to their benefit. They are going to show you whatever product they have on the shelf that the chemical company has labeled for your problem.

Some varieties of tomatoes might work better in your area than others, so choose carefully. The seed catalogs often do a good job with their variety descriptions to help you decide. Some varieties are bred to resist certain diseases. Over the years, the ones I tried solely on disease resistance looked great, but weren’t as flavorful as others I grew. It might be that you have just bought your plants from a big-box store. That’s okay, you have to start somewhere.  However, a few years back there was a big disease problem all along the East Coast. Climate conditions made it a bad year for tomatoes anyway, but contributing to the problem were tomatoes that came from greenhouses that service those big-box stores. When everything comes from one source, and that source has problems, everything has problems. Talk to the farmers at the markets this summer and ask them what varieties of tomatoes they are selling and how well they cope with disease. If they are open-pollinated varieties, you could save the seeds yourself from the tomatoes you buy at the market, or ask the farmer if you can buy plants next spring.

Begin to take notice of your plants. Which ones survived the summer the best? If you also liked them for other reasons, save the seeds for next year. Over time you will develop a strain of that variety that works well in your spot under whatever conditions exist there.

No matter what tomatoes you have in your garden this year, you can learn a lot by watching, taking notes, and talking with others.  When you are planning your garden next year be sure to look back at your notes and plan accordingly.

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS has added me as one of their bloggers. Since March (sorry for the delay in telling you) each time I post my regular blog, a version of it will appear on their website under the Permaculture banner for blogs. You can find it at www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture. I’m not their only permaculture blogger, so you will find other posts there in addition to mine. My posts on MOTHER EARTH NEWS are not quite as long and a little less technical. They will contain some of the same information, but will always have something not in the regular post, such as another story or angle on the subject.

My posts publish here every two weeks on a Tuesday at 6am. Sometime later that same day the MOTHER EARTH NEWS version will appear on their website. You might want to take a look at whatever additional insight I put there. Thank you to the readers who have come here as a result of finding me there. Growing our own food to truly feed ourselves is an exciting undertaking. Together we can make a difference!

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On Tuesday, May 29, 2012 our daughter, Betsy Trice, and I will be presenting Sustainable Vegetable Gardening for Everyone at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Ashland, VA.  In case you marked it on your calendar after reading Tuesday’s blog, this is the correct date.  Tuesday’s post has since been corrected.  Betsy and I will share how we grow healthy food, while at the same time feed the soil and build the ecosystem.  Learn how we manage our gardens and take home ideas for your own vegetable growing. Betsy found her own place in sustainable agriculture during her years in Arkansas and has since moved back to Virginia.  She now teaches the sustainable agriculture classes I left at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and operates Lightfoot Gardening Coach, a consulting business for those interested in vegetable gardening, backyard chickens, and homesteading.  This is the first time we have joined together for a presentation.  We will be on hand beginning at 6:30 and the presentation begins at 7:30 pm.  Come early to claim your seat.  There is no cover charge, however, reservations are recommended.  

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canteloupe seedling-BLOGI’ve been thinking lately of how someone would get started in vegetable gardening these days. In many ways it is a lot different than when I got started so many years ago, and in other ways, not so much. You are still just putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow, hoping to harvest a bounty later in the summer. When I started I had no knowledge of frost dates, days to maturity, garden maps, etc. We had moved out of our one-bedroom apartment and into a rental house with a backyard about a mile from the Ohio State University campus. I dug up the garden space in the area, where neighbors told me later, a garage had been. We bought seeds off a rack in the store and tomato and pepper plants from somewhere that I don’t remember. I do remember the peas we planted. We didn’t know they would get so tall, and when they started growing wildly everywhere, our neighbor suggested we put up a string trellis. With sticks and strings, we got those peas off the ground, just in time for them to stop growing. Who knew they stopped growing as we got into summer? Not us! Another thing I remember is that the tomatoes were planted too close, or so I was told. In our neighborhood the residents were either twenty-somethings, or retired homeowners who had lived there for decades. Our next door neighbor was wonderful. Across the street was a woman who was rather a busy-body. My garden gave those retired women something to talk about. The busy-body would come over to my neighbor’s, look over the picket fence, and pass judgment, which I would learn of later from the neighbor. That’s how I learned the tomatoes were planted too close. Another memory is standing in the garden one evening with my husband and other neighbors (twenty-somethings) across the alley. We were all looking at the green beans which, as I now know, were ready to harvest. Our friends asked when it would be time to pick them and we weren’t exactly sure. Everything was picked a little on the late side, as we watched it grow past its prime. I grew some great carrots that first year. I was just realizing that it was time to start pulling them for the table when there was a frost warning. Thinking I had to get them all out of the ground before the frost, I pulled them all and gave many away to friends. I now know that I can leave carrots in the ground all winter, with some leaves thrown over for a cover, and harvest at my leisure.

MEN-OG-BLOGWe’re talking 1974 here. No internet service or home computers. Making a long-distance telephone call was a big deal. We had a small black-and-white TV and a stereo that played vinyl. My education in organic gardening began with reading Organic Gardening magazine at the local food coop when I visited. It was a couple years before I felt we could afford to actually buy a subscription, which I did in early 1977. Robert Rodale, may he rest in peace, did a wonderful service to humanity through Organic Gardening and Rodale Press. With his magazine and the books that Rodale Press published, he educated so many, many people. In fact, he’s probably not resting on The Other Side, but continuing his mission of guiding people in ways to feed the population of this planet without destroying it. Mother Earth News was also important in our lives. John Jeavons was just beginning to develop what became GROW BIOINTENSIVE® at Ecology Action in California. That was about it for the resources that were out there for organic gardeners and homesteaders.

Fast forward to 2012 and you get instant information overload. A person can become paralyzed with too much information. You don’t need to read everyone’s opinion about something on the web or see all their garden pictures before you put in your own garden. You can just dig up a spot and get started like I did. If you need help, find a resource to focus on to get started, and go from there. I hope that my videos and blog provide that focal point for many. I can be the helpful neighbor across the fence, hopefully not the busybody one. The learning is in the doing. You will soon have some experiences of your own to share. Growing your own food is the thing to do these days and you should be able to find a local group with similar interests. If not, start one.

4 Rodale Books-BLOGThe book I found most helpful when I was first learning is How To Grow Vegetables & Fruits by the Organic Method. It is still a favorite of mine to turn to when I have a question about a crop. Other helpful books have been Home Food Systems, Gene Logsdon’s Practical Skills, and High-Yield Gardening, all out of print by now. In 1989 Chelsea Green came on the scene when it published New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman. That book was helpful to me when I became a market gardener in 1992. With the new century came an explosion of books and magazines on organic gardening, sustainable living, urban agriculture, etc. They are easy to find with an internet search or by browsing in your nearest bookstore. In preparation for this blog, I took a look at some of my old Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News magazines. I believe they could be re-published just as they are and be relevant today. In fact, Mother Earth News has all its old issues available on a CD and many articles accessible through its website.

I began teaching at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in 1999 because I had identified a need. Those classes continue with our daughter, Betsy Trice. Her next class, Organic Gardening Resources, begins May 24 and involves a lot of hands-on. Students will dig garlic, onions, and potatoes and evaluate the yield. They will cut rye and wheat, thresh out the grain, and make compost. For those who can’t take a class, she has started the business of Lightfoot Gardening Coach for people in the Richmond-to-Charlottesville (Virginia) area who may want someone at their side to guide them. She lives between the two cities. She can help people get started with vegetable gardening, backyard chickens, and other homesteading endeavors. Betsy and I are joining together to give a presentation at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Ashland, VA on Tuesday, May 29 at 7:30pm.  I will lead a Wheat Workshop at New Earth Farm in Virginia Beach, VA on Saturday, June 2. For those out of our area, if you check around, you may find learning opportunities near you. Some of you out there just might be the ones to offer such programs. You could start by giving a talk at your local library. Sponsoring a public showing of my videos is a good way to attract like-minded folks. You don’t need any special permission from me or pay any additional fee to do that. You can make hard-copies of the worksheets from the CD to use with participants/students in your own teaching, all with proper credit to Homeplace Earth, of course.  What you do not have permission to do is to make copies of the DVDs and CDs themselves.

Bloom where you are planted. The time to start is now and the place to start is wherever you are.  Best wishes in your endeavors!

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crimson clover and hairy vetch-BLOG

hairy vetch on tomato fence and crimson clover

You did a good job last fall getting cover crops planted.  Now, they’ve taken over your garden and you don’t quite remember what you had planned to do with them. What you’ve done is to grow great biomass for your garden that you can use as compost material or cut down as mulch right where it was grown.  Give yourself a pat on the back!  The next step is to cut it down at the right time as mulch-in-place or cut it and put the material in the compost pile.  At this stage it is all green matter and your compost would benefit from an addition of an equal amount, by volume, of dry, carbon material.   At this time of year my carbon comes from Jerusalem artichoke stalks, or sorghum and cornstalks that I put aside in the fall.  Maybe you have access to leaves, hay, or straw.  If you are bringing in that material from outside sources, read my post Killer Compost to know what to look out for.  Water well when building your compost pile.

cereal rye-BLOG

cereal rye

Last May I wrote Cutting a Rye Cover Crop at Pollen Shed.  It speaks to the importance of cutting your cover crop, in that case cereal rye, at the time when it has reached its most biomass, just before it produces viable seed.  For any crop, that would be when it is flowering. You don’t normally think of grain crops with flowers, however, you will see where the seed heads begin to form and the pollen will be hanging off it.  If you cut it earlier than that, the rye and wheat plants, like the grasses they are, will grow back.  If you wait too long, seed will form. That’s okay if it’s seed you’re after.  In that case, you would wait longer to cut it and need to make sure the seed has matured. One way to test is to cut a few seed heads and thresh out the seeds in your hand.  If you don’t get seed that looks like what you planted, it’s not ready. After the plant has put its energy into seed production, it begins to die. You will see the rye and wheat plants begin to turn brown when it is time to harvest the seed.  The harvest will be seed and straw and usually occurs here in mid-June.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic in zone 7 our last frost date is around April 26.  Cereal rye is my major cover crop and generally sheds pollen around the end of the first week of May.  That’s also about the time that the farmers who are on top of things are making their first cutting of hay.  This year, however, the weather seems to be all mixed up. We didn’t have much of a winter and warm weather arrived early.  Usually we have a spike in the temperature in the second week of April, fooling people into setting out their tomatoes, only to turn colder before the weather has settled.  The weather did a good job convincing my rye that warm weather was here and it flowered early.  I cut it in the beds where it would be left for mulch on April 20. I’m really interested to see how the rye and wheat do that are in the beds to be grown out for seed. The temperatures here dipped into the 30’s on April 24th and 25th after nighttime lows in the 60’s on April 16th and 17th. Looking back to my temperature records from last year, I see that the April nights were consistently warmer in 2011.  Last year I cut the rye for mulch on May 10.  It must be the lack of winter this year, not warm April nights that brought the rye to flower earlier in 2012.  My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows my management of this system.

crimson clover-bee hovering-BLOG

crimson clover with hovering honeybee

It might be that you have grown Austrian winter peas or crimson clover as your cover crop. These crops are legumes which fix nitrogen from the air in the nodules on their roots, returning that nitrogen to the next crop as those roots decompose in the soil.  You could cut these crops at flowering and let them lie as mulch, as with the rye, but their biomass wouldn’t be as long lasting as the rye.  They are best used as green material for the compost, adding carbon to capture all the nutrients as composting occurs.  Crimson clover, not to be confused with red clover, is a beautiful plant that generally flowers here around mid-April.  The legumes can be easily pulled out or cut for compost material and the bed planted soon after.  I wait two weeks to transplant after cutting the cereal rye beds for mulch, but I could transplant sooner than that into the legume-only beds.  If I was seeding into the beds, I could easily do that in a legume bed two weeks after cutting.  If I was only after the biomass and in a hurry to get the next crop in, I would cut crimson clover as soon as it has flowered.  However, I have bees that enjoy it, so I wait a little longer before cutting so they can have the most benefit from the clover blooms. 

Sometimes hairy vetch is planted in the fall to precede tomatoes.  I’ve done that in two tomato beds this year.  I prepared the beds last fall and moved the tomato trellises there at the same time. The vetch grew up and I cut it April 25.  My tomatoes are ready now in the coldframe for planting out.  I started the seeds there on March 16.  Having grown in the coldframe, they are already acclimated to the outdoor temperature fluctuations.   Sometimes hairy vetch can be a nuisance in the garden.  In the past I’ve used it as a companion to the wheat and rye and you can see that in my cover crop video.  You can also see how it became a problem in the rye.

It is good to plant a small amount of a legume into your grain crops and the legume I use now is Austrian winter peas, a winter hardy variety of field peas. Both the vetch and winter peas will grow quite tall and could pull down the grain if left to grow.  That doesn’t matter if I’m just cutting the crop to lie down as mulch, but if I want the grain later in the season I need to pull out the vetch or winter peas.  Austrian winter peas are much easier to pull out than the vetch.  If you are growing grain on a larger scale than your garden bed, you might choose red clover as the companion to the wheat or rye.  You can seed it into the growing grain in the spring.  The red clover will grow some and provide a nice green cover when the grain is harvested, then it will keep on growing and a harvest can be taken the first summer.  Let it grow over the winter, then harvest twice the second summer.   After that it is time for another crop for that space.

You can find the best cover crops for your location and situation by reading Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd edition, available from www.sare.org.  Be sure to read all the text, not just look at the charts.  There is a lot to learn and every time you think you have it down, something else comes along to figure out.  The important thing is to let the soil and the garden guide you.

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