Warning about floating row covers: They float

I’ve been trying an experiment with some of my fall crops. To help reduce problems with pests like cabbage worms, I covered two beds of cabbage, broccoli, and collards with a lightweight spun fabric designed to rest easily over the tops of the plants. They are generally called floating row covers because they “float” on top of the crops, blocking out flying pests and offering a little protection from the cold.
When putting out the row covers, I noticed a couple of things. First of all, the only width I could find in the garden centers around here was four feet. My beds are five feet wide, so I had to crowd my plants into about half the bed. Even then, the width wasn’t quite enough when the plants grew taller.
Also, it’s a challenge to keep the row covers in place. I laid 1X2 tomato stakes around the whole perimeter to weigh down the edges, but the wind tends to work the fabric loose. Since I’m not at the garden every day this time of year, and we’ve had some fairly windy days, I often found the row cover literally laying down on the job lots of time.
In spite of all these challenges, the plants under the row covers had grown larger and less bug eaten than the uncovered bed I am using as a control.
As Sandy spun off the coast, we had some unusually heavy winds, even as far inland as Belly Acre Farm is.
I drove over to check on things the next day. There was no significant damage to the plants, but one of the row covers had blown off on three sides and was rolled roughly along the last side of my tomato stake weights.
The other row cover was completely missing.
I looked around the area, including the edge of the nearby woods, but couldn’t find anything. I replaced the remaining row cover and headed for home.
Today I went back to do some work. I decided to look for the missing row cover. I went over the whole of Mom’s property, but found only a nest of (thankfully) sluggish yellow jackets. They buzzed lazily around me, but couldn’t find the energy to sting. I pushed through the underbrush down into the neighbor’s woods, but still no luck.
Finally, I gave up. I gathered a few vegetables to take home and went to the car.
As I was getting into the car, I looked out toward the garden one more time.
A little spot of what looked like a tent caterpillar nest caught my eye, just a foot down from the top of the oak that marks the corner of Mom’s property.
“That’s kind of high for tent caterpillars,” I thought.
Then I noticed another white web a few feet over from the first one. Suddenly I realized I had found the missing row cover.
It now resides about forty feet above Belly Acre, protecting a small area of the fading leaf canopy of a white oak tree.
Talk about your floating row cover.


Crowder’s Mountain by moonlight

I went on my first solo backpacking trip Wednesday night. I was trying out my new lightweight tarp that I made from a kit (see http://www.rayjardine.com if you’re interested). Because I’m not confident in my sewing abilities, I decided to go on a short overnighter to nearby Crowder’s Mountain State Park.

The good news is that the camping trail is only one mile long. The bad news is there’s no water available, so you have to carry every drop yourself, including enough to drown your campfire. One mishap complicated that mission. After carrying in about a gallon of water, I lost about a quart into my pack as I was setting up camp. Note to self: don’t use a hydration system with a too-efficient quick release valve as a water carrier. I had to scrimp on water but had enough left to get by.

I also tried out a new ultra-light alcohol stove, also homemade. It’s the Super Cat, made from an empty cat food can–hence the name. (You can find instructions on the Web, if you want your own.) It may become my regular camping stove–very light, simple, easy to light, pretty much foolproof. The firewood provided by the park was a little green, so I generated more smoke than heat from it after I burned up the dry kindling I gathered. I ended up cooking dinner over the excess kindling, then watching the barely scorched logs go out within a couple of hours. I used the Super Cat for breakfast.

Going camping on a weeknight in October meant I pretty much had the forest to myself, except for the critters. I heard more owls than I knew could co-exist, plus some assorted creatures I never did identify. One sounded like a squeaky wheel. Another sounded exactly like someone blowing too hard on a plastic recorder.

The tarp performed very well. The night was cool (upper 40s) and I was in a summer-weight sleeping bag (actually under it, as advised by Ray Jardine, the developer of my tarp kit), but I slept snugly and comfortably–well, if sleeping on a hard-packed sand and clay tent pad can ever be called comfortable. Next trip I’ll try stealth camping so I can choose a softer campsite.

One nice thing about a tarp is you can see out on pretty much all sides, so I was able to enjoy the sights at my leisure. The night was very clear, the moon a little more than half-full. In the resulting light the campground (which by day is a fairly usual Piedmont forest) was about the most beautiful place I’ve seen–brilliant silvery moonlight illuminated patches of trees, understory bushes, and autumn leaves, both fallen and falling. I could easily walk around without a flashlight.

One continuing theme for my future camping will be to reduce the weight I carry as much as possible. This trip I carried a pack that weighed 22 lbs. before I added the water. It felt pretty good until I packed in the water, which added about 10 lbs. I was glad the hike in was only a mile, especially since the first half is all uphill. Walking out the next morning was much more fun, with almost all the food and water gone.


Belly Aching comes home

It’s been a tough year at Belly Acre Farm. Weather was a challenge early, with a warm winter interrupted by a late freeze in the spring. That was followed by cool weather for awhile, so it was easy to postpone replanting the freeze-damaged crops in anticipation of yet another cold snap.
Then there was the hail storm that blew over half the corn and, as Uncle Ray put it, made chow-chow of my bumper tomato, pepper, and cucumber crop. The cucumbers and peppers recovered, as did some of the tomatoes, but I didn’t harvest a single Brandywine tomato this year.
Part of the problems after that were my own doing. Just as the green beans started putting on beans, I went off to Edisto Island for a week. By the time I got back to the garden, the bean beetles had destroyed the plants, so we got just one small picking of white half-runners. We got a few bush beans later on, but the only beans that did well were the Kentucky Wonder pole beans, which turned out tough and stringy. (So much so that even Mom—who always insists she loves KW and insists that I plant them even though I’ve never done well with them– agreed I should take them off my planting list for next year.)
Some strange affliction struck the watermelons. The vines turned brown and died before any melons grew large enough to eat. Even the few personal-sized ice box melons I did salvage tasted nothing like the ones we enjoyed so much last year.
In addition to all the challenges, we entered a sort of sophomore slump as consumers. I’ve often joked that I would be a hero in my family if I ever figured out how to grow pizza and Chinese take-out. This year I began to feel that those were the only crops that would be worth growing.
Even with reduced yields, I found myself carrying home the harvest only to return it to the compost pile weeks later after it had languished unused at home. I started whining that I was raising labor-intensive compost rather than food.
In short, Belly Acre Farm was living up to its name. I spent more time belly aching than enjoying the fruits of my labors. I wondered whether it was worthwhile to plant anything else.
And then it came time to harvest the sweet potatoes and peanuts. The sweet potatoes—the first I’ve tried to grow– were far superior to what we have had before from any source. They varied in size, but a couple were almost as big as footballs, though still tender and sweet.
Out of two 100 square foot beds, I harvested about 1 ½ bushels of raw peanuts. Again, this was my first peanut crop, but the peanuts are large and flavorful. We’re still drying them so we can roast some in the shells—if the green peanut aficionados don’t eat the whole crop first.
A few weeks ago I set out some fall greens: collards, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, etc., and planted some radishes and garlic. It looks as if the late corn may yield one more harvest of sweet corn, and the pepper plants are hanging full of sweet and hot peppers. I’m getting excited again about the garden and have been looking through the seed catalogs to plan next spring’s planting.
In other words, I’ve been reminded what every gardener has to learn: No garden is ever perfect, but with persistence and patience, complete failures are rare.

Stay away from those taters!

I dug the first potatoes of the year this week, and I need to add one more tip to the list I wrote earlier.

After the plants get to any size, weed the patch by hand.

I’ve learned and relearned this lesson ever since I started Belly Acre Farm, each time thinking I’ve figured out how to weed the potato patch with my wheel hoe.

With a wheel hoe, you can weed right next to your crops. Or, with root crops like potatoes, even closer.

As the picture shows, I haven’t quite got that figured out.

Actually, these are all from the same potato plant on the corner of the patch. Most of the others will be fine, because the potatoes grew so thickly that they shaded out most weeds and I wasn’t tempted to venture into the patch. This plant started dying back before some of the others, and I assumed it wouldn’t have many potatoes. And of course I wanted to run the wheel hoe down the path between beds every now and then.

Oh, well, lesson learned–for the third year in a row.

The seeds won’t know the difference

When I helped my Dad in our family garden back in the 1950’s and 60’s, agriculture was pretty simple. There were only a few differing ideas about how to grow vegetables, and most people we knew gardened about the same. The times were changing, so the camps basically fell into the traditional and the scientific. A few folks farmed the way their grandfathers had, in what today would be considered organic farming, or nearly so; most had switched to chemical fertilizers and pest controls. Most people saved seeds from reliable open-pollinated standbys, although hybrids were gaining popularity. My Grandpa Nelson Shelton at first refused to buy hybrid seeds—he saw hybrids as a plot by the seed companies to force everyone to buy seed every year. But when he saw the results other farmers got from some of those hybrid seeds, he grudgingly bought a few selections to supplement his saved seeds.

In retrospect, Grandpa Nelson may have been right. Indeed, much of the gardening advice I see in the media today seems to be aimed at getting consumers to buy as much as possible. Now, I have nothing against hybrid seeds, and in fact plant a few myself. But for the most part I plant open-pollinated seeds, many of which I save from year to year.

The advice gardeners get today can be bewildering, especially to someone starting out. It starts with how to start—buy this system or that system. Don’t trust your soil—you’ll be better off if you build a raised bed (using our proven, if expensive, raised bed kit), fill it with bags of special potting soil, install a drip watering system to ensure your plants are constantly watered, etc.

If a beginning backyard gardener follows this advice, he or she will harvest some mighty expensive vegetables, and will have learned very little.

Having gardened in a variety of conditions in four different southern states, I have come to realize the wisdom of something my father often said about the relatively few fads that people touted when he was gardening: “the seeds won’t know the difference.”

Now, of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. If your new garden spot is rock-hard clay, you can’t just chip out a hole and throw some seeds in. But you don’t need to pretend your soil is irrelevant, either. The truth is, a plant has fairly basic needs, and if you meet those, it will grow happily. There’s nothing magical about the soil mix your garden center sells by the bag.

For a new garden bed, I recommend getting a soil test. In most states, the Cooperative Extension service offers soil tests for a very low fee. In North Carolina, they are free.

Based on the results of the soil test, choose the appropriate soil amendments. You’ll save money and frustration if you have that soil test to guide your purchases. When I tested the soil at Belly Acre Farm, for example, I found nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus levels were all good, probably because a neighbor had planted crimson clover on the fallow garden years before, and it reseeded itself every year. As a result, I’ve concentrated on adding organic matter and a little lime to balance the pH. Had I followed the current recommendations in the media, I would have spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars bringing in soil that was higher in organic matter but in other regards not as good as the existing soil.

By contrast, the small plot behind my house that I nicknamed The Brickyard, was deficient in nitrogen. And it had almost no organic matter. In the first few years, I tried adding the prescribed bagged potting mixes on top of the existing soil as advised, but the soil didn’t get a whole lot better. The major change was that the neighborhood cats found a wonderful outdoor litter box where I was trying to grow lettuce and snow peas. Only after I scooped off the cat-contaminated layer and double dug the beds did the soil start to improve. (The cats find it less attractive, too.)

My other bit of advice: Don’t worry too much about the raised bed approach that seems to be the current magic bullet for most popular media. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it has some advantages. Raised beds reputedly warm faster in the spring, but I’ve noticed they also dry out a lot faster in the summer heat. If you have some real physical limitations that make it difficult to get down on ground level, a relatively high bed can help. So does using long-handled tools, and they cost less than one of those fancy raised beds.

And a final minor point: I’ve read a lot the past couple of years about skipping the seed rack and buying “ready to plant” seedlings from the home center. It is true that buying seedlings (or “bedding plants” as we old-timers call them) can give you a head start, especially with plants that are difficult to grow from seed. But this isn’t a magic bullet, either. Nowadays most bedding plants come from a single giant nursery company, and every year they seem to have problems with one crop or the other. And of course they ship those problems all over the region they serve. If you are concerned about biodiversity and even your own likelihood of success, you might not want to have all your seeds in one greenhouse, to paraphrase the old saying.

The plain fact is this: select plants that you want to grow, get good quality seeds or bedding plants, give them adequate sun, water, and decent soil, and they’ll grow. Protect against pests and disease, and they’ll yield a good harvest. Beyond that, as Dad would say, “they won’t know the difference.”

Tater talk, or growing potatoes

One of my most successful crops at Belly Acres Farm last year was potatoes. Given the limited success I’d had growing them before, I consider that a bit of a breakthrough.

Apparently Mom did, too.

Before she saw (and later tasted) the potatoes I grew last year, she was clearly a little ashamed of my efforts at vegetable gardening. I’ve written previously about her efforts to help me “do better”–or to get her friends to fix my garden for me.

But last year the subtle disapproval changed to frequent comments about “all the good food” we’ve had out of “our” garden. The change happened pretty suddenly after she had cooked up a few batches of potatoes I had grown.

I have to admit they were the best tasting potatoes I’ve ever eaten. The best of all were Kennbec, was a variety Dad grew in the same garden before his death in 1994. His grew well, but never as well as these. Based on our informal “tests” over the last 20 or so years, I think I have it figured out.

I’ve planted another crop of Kennbec this year, along with some Yukon Gold. I’ll let you know if my optimism is warranted when tater digging time comes later this year.

But for now, here’s what I’ve figured out about growing potatoes:

  1. Buy seed potatoes. Many of my relatives (and people offering advice on the Internet and on TV) say you can grow any potato from the grocery store, but my results with grocery store taters were mixed at best. Some varieties were slow to sprout, probably because they were treated to improve storage. Others grew well but tasted bad or rotted quickly. To be sure what you have, get potatoes grown and sold for seed by a reputable source.
  2. Enrich the soil. At Belly Acre farm, the soil is naturally red clay. I’ve been adding organic matter for several years now. Each year the soil is a little more crumbly and lighter. Each year the good part of the garden—the section where crops just grow better—has grown bigger. I think skipping the old 10-10-10 fertilizer that Dad always used has improved the flavor of the potatoes noticeably, although I can’t claim to have proved that scientifically. But I can claim that the potatoes I’ve grown without artificial fertilizer impressed my mother, who thinks this organic stuff is just silly.
  3. Forget the fancy methods. Each year I see people advocating elaborate arrangements of bales of hay, boxes without bottoms, etc., etc., but the folks around here who say they’ve tried that stuff find it’s generally a lot of trouble without a big payoff.
  4. Pile dirt over the base of the plants as they grow. I plant my potatoes in close-spaced rows (about 18” apart), and a couple of times during the growing season I pile up additional dirt along the rows. If you don’t do this, potatoes will form at or near the surface, and the sun will turn them green and hard. A gardener wrote to an online gardening Q&A asking where you get the dirt. That struck me a little like asking the grocer where to find the empty orange juice cans for adding three cans of water, but it is a point to consider. You can’t just dig up your whole garden in search of extra soil. But I found I could dig a shallow trench just outside the rows and get enough to do the job.
  5. Watch for pests. At Belly Acres, Colorado potato beetles are a big threat. The first year I tried to control them with approved organic sprays, like insecticidal soap, but the results were disappointing. After that I realized my thumb and forefinger were the best insecticides. When I want to estimate the population, I may knock them off into a jar of soapy water so I can count them after I’m done, but often I’ll just start squishing. Wear gloves if squished bugs offend you. Look under leaves for the eggs (a cluster of pinhead-sized yellow-orange ovoids) and remove them with the same thumb-and-finger method. You’ll save yourself a lot of bug squishing if you can catch them in the egg stage. Vigilance is the key—check every day or so and you’ll find the population diminishes to a level that’s easy to manage. (click the image to enlarge)

    I found these eggs on the bottom of a beet leaf, but they look like potato beetle eggs.

    Here’s an adult Colorado potato beetle crawling between my potatoes.

    These juvenile potato beetles obviously hatched from eggs at the same time.

  6. Make sure the plants get the right amount of water—an inch or so per week. Gardeners in Dad’s day relied almost totally on

    You can tell by his size and by the chunks missing from the leaves that this Colorado potato beetle is nearing adult size.

    rainfall. I’ve learned that dragging a hose out to the garden can make a big difference when the weather turns dry.

  7. Harvest promptly when the plants wilt and die. Gardeners from northern climates often write that potatoes will store beautifully in the ground. But if you live where the weather is still hot at harvest time, that advice doesn’t hold. Digging isn’t hard, but it does take a little hands-on experience to get the hang of it. I still like the D-handled spading fork I’ve had for years, though there are other tools and methods out there. To use the spading fork, insert it into the mound about a foot from where the plant grew, and pry downward on the handle. That should open the mound and expose the potatoes. Pick them up, knock off any dirt clods, and add them to your bucket or wheelbarrow (gently–fresh-dug potatoes bruise easily). Move around the mound and repeat until you feel confident you’ve uncovered all the taters. If you find you are frequently cutting into a potato with your fork, you’re digging too close. Move back a few inches. The cut potatoes are fine to eat, but they won’t store. Use them right away.
  8. “New” potatoes are a different kind of vegetable from the ones from the grocery store. I like to pick out the smallest ones, then boil them with the skins on. You can easily remove the skins after the potatoes are done.
  9. Potatoes need to be dried slightly before storing. Make sure they are out of the sun or they’ll turn green. After a day or so, they can be stored long-term in a basement or any place that is dark, cool, and relatively humid. Use dry containers or plastic sheeting (I use roofing felt, as Dad did) to keep the potatoes from direct contact with the soil. Inspect them periodically and remove any that show signs of rot or sprouting.

By the way, I’ve decided that late winter or early spring is the best time to plant around here (Zone 7). I’ve read that some people like to plant in the fall. I tried that, making sure I planted the potatoes about 8″ deep, as the instructions stressed. The potatoes kept sprouting and then getting killed back by the cold weather, even during our mild winter. In the end, I was left with only a couple of sick-looking potato plants that seemed to attract more pest than the more robust spring-planted crop.

Good Friday for planting

It being past Easter, any of the old-timers you run into are bound to ask you, “Did you get your garden planted?”

They mean, of course, did you spend Good Friday planting all your summer vegetables? With only a few occasional exceptions, like potatoes going in earlier, or beans going in later, the normal practice around these parts was to plant your vegetables on Good Friday.

My Dad was not particularly superstitious—he laughed at an uncle who planted by the phase of the moon—but he never missed a Good Friday planting that I can recall.

“Anything you plant on Good Friday will come up in three days,” he would tell me as I helped him drop seeds into a new furrow.

“Really?” I would ask, gullible every year of my early childhood.

“Yes,” he would answer with a hint of humor in his face. “As long as it’s something that comes up in three days.”

Completing the ritual recitation of the ancient superstition, he would add, “And anything you plant on Rotten Saturday will rot in the ground and never grow.”

“Really?” I would repeat.

“No, the seeds won’t know the difference,” he would reply. That’s why he would have us working in the garden on both days while some of our neighbors would do other things on Saturday. I think he would have planted on Easter in some years if our garden had been shielded from the road and the view of fellow Baptists.

And, sure enough, as far as I can recall, the crops planted on Rotten Saturday did about the same as those planted on Good Friday.

This year has been one to test the old planting practices. Our winter was extremely mild, so much so that I was able to grow greens, onions, and garlic right through the cold months without fear of freezing. Yet our spring has had some very late frost, so that I had to scurry around covering cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers two weeks after our average last frost date.

Luckily, I waited to plant corn and beans until well after Easter, so they were not subject to the late freezes.

Well, I hope not. A week ago, I planted my first corn and beans. Our last (I hope) frost was Tuesday, just three days later. Fortunately, Good Friday was a couple of weeks ago, so the seeds did not sprout in those three days and thus were resting comfortably underground.

I hope that, as Dad used to say, they didn’t know the difference.