Monday, February 21, 2011

Agricultural Learnings of Winter for Make Benefit Glorious Urban Homestead

My writing muse mostly deserted me for a while there.  But I feel a post on the PASA conference is owing, and I also recently attended a mini-seminar on potatoes.  So I figure I can summarize useful stuff I picked up in one go.  Here's a rundown of things good things that happened at the conference and things I've learned recently.

As usual, there were free seed packets to be had at the conference.  I got some from Seed Savers Exchange but also found to my chagrin that they were giving away some I had just ordered from them.  Johnny's, also as usual, had a free shipping coupon on offer as well as their nifty 14-month calendar, which will hold me till next year's conference.  Knowing Johnny's typically gave out this coupon, I managed to hold off ordering from them until after the conference.  There were also nice coupons and useful schwag such as pencils and pens from Organic Valley. Lots of good free noshy bits were available at various times too.  I bid on a few lovely things at the auction, but didn't win, so I came home having blown less money than I did last year.  New at the conference this year was an informal seed swap table.  I picked up some cilantro and echinacea seeds.  I'll try to remember to bring some of my own seed next year to give away.

I learned about a very promising technique for trellising tomatoes that involves pretty serious pruning, which I plan to try this year.  I know my track record is execrable when it comes to delivering posts I promise to write "soon."  So I'll just say that when it's time to put my tomatoes in the ground, I'll try to get a post or two together on this trellising technique.  I should say that I put my tomatoes starts in about ten days later than most gardeners in my area, around June 1st.  Then the trellising doesn't really start until the plants have grown for 3-4 weeks.  If you want to play along with this trellising method on the strength of my non-existent description of it, I can tell you it will require very sturdy and tall metal posts; one for every ten feet or so of row.  T-posts are preferable, but the very large U-posts can work too, and that's what I'll be using.  It also calls for aluminum wire, preferably 15-, 16-, or 17-gauge.  Twine is definitely not a viable alternative to the wire for this method.  And you'll need something to clip the plants to the wire.  Twisty ties can work, but the farmer recommended the reusable, cheap, and easy-to-use tomato clips from Johnny's.  She didn't say how many per plant, but I would think 10 per plant would be in the right neighborhood.

Okay, here are a couple of bite-sized tips I can pass along from the conference.  Those posts mentioned for the tomato trellising - they're not the easiest thing for one person to pound into the ground.  Particularly if that post is 7' tall and that person is an average woman.  There's a great tool that makes the job a lot easier.  This was specifically mentioned by this female farmer, and it so happens that I already have the tool and can back up her endorsement from my personal experience.  It's a post driver, and it's basically indestructible.  Two people can work together to use it, and that makes things even easier.  But I've gotten a 7' post into the ground by myself with this tool.  Well worth having if you place posts on a regular basis.  The second tip is how to get those posts out of the ground by yourself.  The technique is simple.  Fill a bucket full of water, and pour it all out right where the post goes into the soil.  Apparently this will instantly loosen the ground up enough to pull the post out easily.

I heard about the use of horsetail (Equisetum spp.) as a natural anti-fungal compost tea spray for a variety of garden plants.  It's supposed to prevent powdery mildew on squash plants, help tomatoes and potatoes resist blight, and help fruit trees resist fungal diseases as well.  I don't know how efficacious it is, but this is the sort of remedy that can't really do harm.  So I'm definitely willing to try it and see what happens.  I'm going to hope we don't have another blight year, but I always get powdery mildew on my zucchini plants, so I should be able to test this spray this year for sure.

I attended two talks by Michael Phillips, The Apple Grower.  Both of them were excellent and a bit overwhelming.  What I learned about fruit trees, their diseases, pests, and health, would be very difficult to summarize even briefly here.  I learned a lot though, and will be reading through his book as well as his website, very carefully.  He also has another book coming out later this year.  I realize that I haven't really paid much attention to my fruit trees, or taken all that good care of them.  The intensive devotion to his trees that Phillips practices, as a professional orchardist, is something I will probably never be able to approach.  But there are plenty of things I could put into practice that would likely help the overall health of the few fruit trees on our homestead.  I'll try to write about these things as I do them.  Certainly I'll experiment with using the chickens to help break pest cycles under our mature apple tree this year.  I put in a suggestion at the conference that PASA bring Phillips back for a full day track on fruit trees.  He obviously had a lot more to say than was possible in the time allotted to his talks.

Audio recordings are available of all workshops presented at the conference.  This is some consolation for the fact that I can attend only one workshop per time slot.  If only I could find a way to be in two places at once.  I left a list of the workshops I'd like to hear audio recordings of with a friend who was staying later than we did.  So I've got those to look forward to.  Sometimes a great presentation is only a mediocre audio recording, because all the visual is lost.  But usually I can get something out of them, and sometimes speakers will agree to email their power point presentations or handouts to interested folks.

I also came back from the conference with verbal permission to nag three people by email.  The first is a woman at Rodale who responded immediately and positively to my inquiry as to whether or not Rodale might be interested in hosting a scion wood exchange and workshop on how to graft fruit trees.  (Scion wood is a small branch taken from one fruit tree and grafted onto either bare rootstock or another fruit tree.)  The Rodale Experimental Farm is not terribly far from where I live, and it has large apple orchards.  A scion wood swap fits well with the sorts of things they like to promote.  And it looks like they will; I've already gotten an email back from her that says they'll try to put on something like this next year.  Awesome!  The second person is a livestock veterinarian with a passion for raising animals on pasture.  She's not in my immediate area, but has agreed to come to my tiny homestead when she's next in the neighborhood and consult with me about the feasibility of (some day) having a few miniature dairy goats here.  This is something I would love to do, but I think it would take 2-3 years of site preparation to work the way I would want it to work.  The third person is the woman who made the mind-blowing fermented ketchup which I sampled at last year's conference.  She agreed (again) to give out the recipe.  So I definitely intend, very politely, to nag her by email until she coughs it up.  My attempts to reproduce the recipe last year were a complete failure.  If she follows through, I'll post it here.

I guess I'm learning to maximize the schmooze potential of the conference.  It really is a seething wealth of walking expertise.   And there's a lot more to tap into than just the formally scheduled talks.

As for the potato class, I learned a few useful things there too.  For one thing, the majority of potato diseases mostly cause only cosmetic defects.  Hollow heart, and scab - these affect appearance, but not safety.  We can eat tubers affected by these diseases quite safely.  In fact, the instructor said that the potato has an awfully good track record as far as food safety is concerned.  Humans don't tend to eat potatoes raw, and our cooking methods for the tuber take care of pretty much any microorganism from the field.  This is great news for gardeners and homesteaders.  We don't produce for market, so it matters very little if our potatoes aren't picture perfect.

Seed potatoes have a "clock" that determines their physiological age, as opposed to their actual age.  The clock starts ticking when the parent plant dies back, or when the potato is harvested, whichever comes first.  Temperature determines how fast the clock moves.  Seed potatoes are ideally stored at slightly colder temperatures (34-36F/1-2C) than potatoes destined to be eaten (42-44F/5-7C).  The more warmth the potato experiences, the faster it ages.  The "younger" the seed potato, the fewer stalks the plant will send up, and the larger and fewer the tubers will be.  The "older" the seed potato, the more stalks the plant will send up and the smaller and more numerous the tubers will be.  Overall, the difference in total yield by weight is insignificant from an older to a younger seed potato.  There are several other differences in the way plants from young or old seed will behave, but here's the interesting application of this knowledge... The ideal seed potato weighs 2.25-2.5 oz. (64-71g).  You can cut larger potatoes down to use for seed, but it's better to use uncut potatoes if you can.  So if you want to deliberately grow potatoes to use as seed potatoes, it pays to use "older" seed potatoes for your planting.  If you want your potatoes just for eating, "younger" seed potatoes will give you fewer spuds to scrub per serving, and fewer small potatoes that might escape your notice during harvest.  Good to know, eh?

And here's another interesting thing I learned.  When potato varieties are developed, part of the process is to grow out new strains in test fields which have been deliberately infected with various potato diseases.  This is done to observe resistances to common potato diseases, so as to decide which new varieties might be commercially viable.  As an aside the instructor mentioned that test fields infected with potato scab virus universally clear the virus spontaneously after a few years, and thereafter it's difficult to reestablish the virus in that field.  This off hand comment captured my attention quite dramatically.  It has me thinking about soil biology, and how little we really grasp what's going on in there. I guess if you've got scab on your garden potatoes, you can just cut off the superficial blemishes and count on the disease going away on its own, eventually.  That would definitely work for me.

Well, that's all I got for today.  I'll try to be better about regular updates.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kate: What a great post to wake up to. I sure wish I could attend the conference; hopefully next year it will be a weeek earlier or later. Thanks for sharing what you have learned. Very inspiring as I look out over my garden which is covered in that white stuff again. Marion in G'ville.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing some of what you learned. I'm hearing more and more about trellising tomatoes so I think I'll give it a go this year.


The Mom said...

That sounds like a fabulous conference. I'm curious to see the tomato trellising.

Mr. H. said...

I found the information you shared on potatoes to be quite fascinating...I had never heard about how the age of the potato determines what kind of crop one will get. I also found the part about scab to be interesting as we plant all of our own saved potatoes and over the years have noticed much less scab issues, almosty none last year.

I'm so glad you shared this information and look forward to hearing more about the tomato trellising technique.

Lynda said...

Terrific post! I actually took notes! Just planted 20# of potatoes and have 30 heirloom tomato seedlings under grow lights. I have 6 fruit trees waiting to be planted and will go over to the Grow Organic Apples web site as soon as I finish this comment. Thanks again for a timely post.

Paula said...

Horsetail is super invasive though, so go collect it; don't plant it! Another good anti-fungal is cornmeal in warm water- they think that the warm water releases enzymes that eat the fungus. It worked well on my roses last year.

Thank you for passing the information on regrading potatoes. This will be my first year growing them, so this info is both timely and useful!

Jennie said...

Oooh.. thanks on the potato info. I'd wondered about the scab potatoes, as I had that problem this year, but they all smelled ok, and tasted ok, so we've been eating them.

Glad my instincts were right.

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife said...

Thanks for all the potato info!

I had to go to my own (work-related) conference this weekend so missed our local potato info/tuber swap day -- now after reading your post, I at least feel I've gained some of the info I missed.

I don't think we'll be able to manage the tomato trellising in our tomato space but I'll keep an eye out for long poles just in case!

M L Jassy said...

I like the idea of the seed swap table, and happy trellissing!

Chile said...

Holy cow, you came home chockfull of information! Looking forward to your tomato trellising information as we're thinking about trying them again here.

Sandy said...

Darn it, Kate, I was in the trellising talk with you. I came home with two of the clips attached to my key chain. Will we ever meet, or are we like Griffin and Sabine? Oh, and I won the Hershey Hotel vacation in the auction...the only time I've ever won anything good! Go figure. I was looking for you there! Next year, I will wear a sign that says "KATE! It's ME!"

Anonymous said...

Very nice!

I vote this "best urban homestead blog entry title".


Kate said...

Marion, I'm pretty sure the conference is always the first Friday-Saturday of February. It's a tough time of year for travel, but that's about the only time of year that farmers can reliably sneak away from their farms.

Emmie, glad it was useful to you. Good luck with this year's garden.

The Mom, I'll try to be good about getting the posts up in a timely manner so you can follow along this year.

Mr. H, I'd never heard of it either. But I'm pretty trusting of the source of this information. The instructor was definitely a potato guru. I once asked him a question about late blight and was treated to an impromptu, detailed, half-hour lecture on the intricacies of separate strains of the blight fungus. Nice to hear some anecdotal confirmation of scab just eventually going away.

Lynda, glad it was useful to you.

Paula, no worries. I wasn't planning on planting horsetail. I got hold of some dried horsetail, so I'll see if that works. But I'd like to find some wild stuff so I can do a side-by-side comparison and see if there's any difference between fresh and dried. We'll see if I can locate some in the right season. Thanks too on the cornmeal tip. Will keep it in mind.

Jennie, you're quite welcome. Your instincts were good.

Louisa, anytime. If the type of trellising I'm going to pursue won't work, there's another type where you just hang a vertical line and then keep training the tomato vine around it. Maybe that could work for you?

Thanks, Mitzi.

Chile, yeah, that's what I love so much about this conference. I don't know that I'll be able to demo the trellising in a timely manner for you. I think you're in a warmer zone. But you can always consider it for next year if it's too late this year.

Sandy, I *knew* we must be crossing paths. I just never caught sight of a Sandy on any nametag. We should just get together for a meal one of these days.

Anon, thanks. I was wondering if anyone would get the humor or the reference.

Mountain Walker said...

Yea for the ketchup recipe! I also have failed MISERABLY at a worthy homemade ketchup. I can’t wait to hear all the updates!

J-Dog said...

Really enjoyed the info you provide in this post, especially the parts about seed potatoes. Thanks!

Chris said...

Why use plastic clips to tie up tomato plants?? That doesn't make sense.

Find something in the garden to use as ties. I use the dried flax leaves from my flax bush. Free, and what's more, entirely compostable. :)

Kate said...

Elizabeth, I've got the ketchup recipe and will post it this week! Woot! Stay tuned.

J-Dog, you're welcome, and thanks for letting me know it was useful to you.

Chris, a clip that is re-usable, cheap, can be sterilized if necessary, and can be applied very quickly with one hand makes all kinds of sense to me. The period when tomatoes grow is the absolute busiest garden time of the year for me. But to each their own.