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.

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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.

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.

Living fence

 

This week, I’ve been working in my backyard garden, nicknamed “The Brickyard” for its dense red clay that I’ve been trying to improve over the last several years. Last year I tried double digging two of the three small beds, and was amazed at how well my vegetables grew. It was if the dead earth had sprouted.

As I was double digging the third bed this year, I suddenly remembered my first backyard garden. I was in graduate school at Clemson, and Joyce and I lived in a married student duplex on the edge of campus. Somehow I had discovered Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, which in those days was a newsprint, no color, no frills monthly. While the format was plain, the content was inspiring, and I soon found myself digging up a small section of our backyard and planting a few vegetables.

My neighbor in the duplex, a doctoral student in animal husbandry, watched me without comment. We got along fine as neighbors, but he seemed to merely tolerate my lack of a proper degree (I was an English major).

A few days later, an area adjoining my garden and about twice its size mysteriously lost the grass that had covered it, and a surprising number of tomato and other plants appeared. When we next saw each other, Scott complimented me on my garden.

“It’s nothing compared to yours,” I said truthfully. He nodded without saying anything.

After a pause, he said, “Have you thought about a fence?”

When I said I hadn’t, he said he worried about leaving the vegetables unprotected from campus lawnmowers and wild animals that might come out of the neighboring woods. He offered to put a fence around both our plots if I would share expenses and help him. I agreed right away.

The fence material, simple chicken wire, cost very little as I recall. He may have had a source through his department. Anyway, a couple of rolls were in our backyard when I got home from class one afternoon. Scott said we’d get the fence posts on Saturday.

When Saturday morning came, I met him in the backyard.

“Where will we get the fence posts?” I asked. I imagined a small stack of metal posts coming from the hardware store or something along those lines.

“Right there,” Scott said patiently, motioning to the woods next to our yard.

“Oh,” I said, as Scott retrieved a saw from inside his apartment.

Soon we had cut down a tulip poplar tree about six inches thick and cut it into fence post lengths.

We carried the posts into the yard, and Scott got out a post hole digger. We took turns digging post holes along the perimeter of the garden, then we set the posts and tamped earth in the holes to make them solid. Finally, we strung two widths of chicken wire, one above the other, around the fence posts. Scott fashioned a gate, and our fence was done.

But nature wasn’t finished with our fence. Within a week, I walked out back to check on my crops. Where dead tulip tree posts had been the day before, sprouts had appeared. The garden was alive, for sure! Worried that the fence posts would starve the vegetables they were supposed to protect, I quickly cut off all the sprouts.

A few days later, more sprouts appeared. As I was cutting them off, Scott came out.

“Will these sprouts hurt our crops?” I asked.

“No, I doubt it. But I’ve never seen dead fence posts sprout this much. If we leave them alone, I think they’ll die pretty soon,” Scott replied.

So we let the fence leaf out and waited for the dead limbs to get the news of their passing. They were still green at the end of the summer, with over-sized tulip poplar leaves waving in the breezes.

The crops did fine, though. It was one of my most successful gardens ever.

Winter gardening

This is my first year to attempt full-on winter gardening. I’ve planted a few greens in past years, but never a lot and never with much success.

This year I re-read my old copy of Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest (since reprinted with a different title) and decided to try a more serious, larger effort.

It’s been a learning experience, and a productive one. Here are a few of the things I have learned so far:

  1. Even though it’s called winter gardening, planting needs to happen in late summer or early fall. Many of the things I planted in mid- to late fall are languishing in the limited sunlight. We have yet to enjoy any spinach or collards. The plants are just too small to harvest.
  2. You can’t plant too much broccoli, or at least I haven’t found the upper limit. The plants I managed to set out early enough have yielded us the most delicious broccoli we’ve ever eaten.
  3. Most crops should be harvested before they reach the size you are used to buying in the grocery store. Some of our broccoli started blooming because I kept waiting for it to grow a little bigger. Fortunately, the pretty yellow blossoms didn’t seem to hurt the taste much, although the texture was a little odd. Our cabbages are smaller than the ones I grew last spring, but it became obvious they wouldn’t benefit from longer in the garden. The smaller heads are as tightly compacted as last season’s whoppers, but the taste is just as good—a little sweeter, in fact.
  4. Beets are a new favorite. We seldom ate them before growing our own, but we’ve been amazed at how good an oven-baked beet can be. The tops are also good, especially sautéed with a little onion and mustard.
  5. It probably pays to over-plant root crops, or to start them in flats and transplant once they get going. Only a small fraction of the carrots and beets I planted directly in the garden came up.

I’ve been either lucky or unlucky with the weather this winter, depending on the point of view. Following Coleman’s suggestions, I was expecting to have to cover lots of my winter crops to keep them from freezing. But he lives in Maine; my garden is in North Carolina, and this year has been quite mild. The cold hardy crops I’ve got growing have not needed any cover so far. That’s lucky of course. But I have no idea how to apply the row covers to protect the plants when the weather is somewhere between Coleman’s Maine and this year’s mild temperatures.

One of the benefits of winter gardening is that there are fewer pest problems. But in this mild weather, a few cabbage worms have decided to try over-wintering. I’ve learned to check things carefully for hitchhikers before eating them, even on relatively cold days.

Faith of our fathers

The gardening methods I’m using now are quite different from those I learned as a boy. In fact, the methods I’m using now vary significantly from those I used even a few years ago. I like to flatter myself that my methods are based on solid science, and hence are subject to refinement and change over time. (Did I just use the euphemism for evolution? Oh, dear.) But now that I think about it, I realize what I do at Belly Acre Farm has been shaped, and sometimes constrained, by the way my father and grandfathers gardened.

By the way, when I say garden, I am using the word in the same sense most Southerners, going back at least to Thomas Jefferson, used it; that is, small scale vegetable farming. The land around your house is a yard, regardless of whether you plant grass or roses. Flowers are grown in flower beds, not gardens.

The methods I learned as a boy, and those I still see practiced widely around here, were much more faith-based. They were derived from traditional larger-scale farming.

In fact, one feature of the traditional methods is they assume a lot of land is available. Crops are planted in single rows that are spaced widely. The original purpose was to accommodate plow horses and mules. As power-driven machines came on scene, they were built to the same horse or mule scale. Our gardens did not change in size or design. If anything, our gardens continued to the old scale even when larger-scale farming methods changed. Today, most of the large-scale farmers use some sort of no-till methods. Most gardeners still till their soil heavily and often. They also still plant in widely spaced single rows.

I can remember a time in my childhood when our neighbor, Lee Stroupe, started planting corn much more closely than we did in our garden. He farmed much larger fields, growing feed for his dairy cows. I asked Dad why our corn rows were three or four feet apart, while Mr. Stroupe’s were a foot or so. His explanation was that corn grown for cows could be planted closer. If we tried to plant our corn like that, we wouldn’t get nearly enough production.

It seemed a reasonable answer, though I remember studying the fields of corn and seeing the same tall stalks bearing the same number of ears as I saw in our garden.

Our garden had lots of bare ground showing, as did every other garden in the area, and we spent much of our time working on the wide spaces, chopping weeds or running a cultivator to break up the hard ground.

Faith was a big factor in gardens during my youth. Soil was whatever was there when you started, provided by the Lord for your use. A few of us added cow or horse manure occasionally, when it was available, but for the most part we depended on God’s providence and accepted what He put under our feet. The idea of improving the soil was only vaguely recognized by most gardeners. By the 1960s, most gardeners considered soil just a medium for holding the manufactured fertilizers that had become available. Even Grandpa Charlie Lineberger, who farmed with a horse and as far as I know never bought an internal combustion machine besides his car, told me how important it was to throw some “soda” or “ammonia” (the common names for sodium nitrate and ammonium nitrate fertilizers) on the field before planting.

Commercial fertilizers improve plant growth, but they are one-shot deals. You have to reapply every time you plant; there is no long-term benefit to the soil itself. It would have been almost sacrilegious to suggest that the Lord had not provided adequate soil at Creation.

Water for our gardens also depended on faith. Dad would carry a bucket of water to the field when he set out tomatoes, but otherwise, water was the Lord’s department. Most gardeners I knew were contemptuous of anyone who watered vegetables with anything but the rain the Lord sent.

“Watering the garden makes the plants weak. Once you start putting water on your garden, the plants get used to having water all the time. If you stop hauling water, they’ll die,” was the way Grandpa Nelson Shelton explained it to me.

So our solution to drought, even if our corn turned brown and died, or if our beans and tomatoes stopped producing at the height of the season, was to petition the Lord through prayer. It was a common prayer at church and at family gatherings: “Lord, it’s awful dry here this year, and we ask that, if it be Your will, You send some rain to help our crops.”

Garden pests were another matter, however. The Lord might be in charge of sun and rain, but when it came to bugs, we took over.

“Cotton dust” was the generic name used for one insecticide popularly applied to many gardens. I haven’t been able to find just what that was, although it may have been a blend of arsenic, sulfur, and nicotine.

My family preferred “bean dust,” a commercial preparation of rotenone. Whether they knew its toxicity and environmental impact were lower I never knew. I imagine it was easier and cheaper to buy than cotton dust. I do know that at least one relative used bean dust on his garden and cotton dust around the house to control insect pests, so I doubt there were serious concerns about health or environment. Faith extended to man-made products as well.