Thinking of Spring: thoughts on planning and starting your commercial or home vegetable garden
By Harriet Behar
This article was first printed in the March - April 2008 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
We are having a “real winter” this year, with lots of snow and cold in the Upper Midwest. For avid vegetable growers, whether you are a home gardener or a commercial grower, spending many hours with seed catalogs is a winter ritual that helps us get through “cabin-fever” and fills our heads with optimistic thoughts of the “best year ever” with our vegetables in the coming summer. I’d like to share with you a few tips I’ve learned over my many years of organic vegetable selection and production to help get you to that “best year”.
As organic growers, we know that there are no crops as challenging as vegetables, when it comes to disease, weed and insect pressures. Each description in a seed catalog makes every variety sound like it is a must have. But, experience has shown me that there are certain characteristics you can look for to help avoid problems and have better quality production.
Seeking out sweet corn that has tight ear tips can really help deter earworms. I also like to find corn varieties that will “hold well in the field”, so my picking window is as long as possible.
If you have problems with blight or disease in your tomatoes, seek out blight and disease resistant varieties. Plant your tomatoes where you did not have members of the solanaceae family (peppers, potatoes) planted for at least 3-4 years.
If your peppers or melons do not have good yields or mature as you might like, try some of the earlier maturing varieties. You may sacrifice size with these types, but at least you can get some good tasting crops before the first fall frost. Think about your specific ecosystem and what grows well for you, and try not to let the seed catalogs push you to buy something that may sound good, but may not do well for you.
- Experiment with New Varieties.
Try out some new varieties each year, and try to keep track of what is planted where, so you can compare these new types to your tried and true varieties. This is becoming more and more of an issue, as seed companies are consolidated and new companies discontinue offering some of the varieties that we have come to depend upon. Monsanto purchased Seminis Seeds a couple of years ago, with many favorite varieties now owned by this multinational corporation. These include Seneca zucchini, Mars red onion, Packman broccoli, Pulsar muskmelon, North Star pepper, Red Knight pepper, Early Cascade tomato, Celebrity tomato, Big Beef tomato and Classica paste tomato. Fedco seeds will not carry these varieties any longer, due to their wish to not support Monsanto, although they are available through other suppliers.
- Saving Seed.
Think about doing some of your own seed saving this year. There are numerous books, that can give you guidance on the needs of each type of vegetable, as well as which are self pollinating and which may need some space between varieties to avoid cross pollination. I recommend The New Seed Savers Handbook by Nancy Bubel and Starting from Seed by Karan Davis Cutler. Saving your own tomato seeds is very easy and can be a good way to start. It is best to start out with non-hybrid varieties, to get more true to variety in subsequent generations.
- Basic Tomato Seed Saving Instructions.
Next summer, choose a nice ripe tomato (mmm, I am salivating just thinking about a sun-warmed, juicy, ripe, sweet and acidic tomato). Scoop out the seeds and gelatinous matter, and put it in a glass or cup. Let it ferment for a few days. Then wash off the whitish mold (I put the seeds in a tea strainer and run it under cold water from the tap), then put them on a dish, stir them occasionally and let them dry. Put them in an envelope, label it and store in a cool, dry, dark place. You have now your own saved seed! Heirloom, open-pollinated tomatoes tend to have cosmetic issues, such as cracking and uneven ripening. You can be the seed selector and choose the best of what you have, promoting a better quality tomato that grows well in your own environment. Have fun! If you don’t have potato scab or other root diseases, you can even save potatoes from year to year, selecting those that keep well for you through the winter. With the prices of seeds going up each year, it can’t hurt to grow your own, at least a few cherished varieties.
- Growing Organic Transplants.
In order to grow some of your own variety selections, you will need to start your own transplants. This is not difficult, even starting a few flats under lights in a spare bedroom or in the basement works. Make sure you have the lights close to the plants. Set this up so the lights can be raised as the plants get taller. Heating pads are sold that can be placed under flats to give them the extra warmth they may need to germinate evenly. There are a variety of potting mixes available on the market. Legally, an “organic” label on plant inputs can be anything that contains carbon. So an “organic” potting mix, may not be “approved for organic production”. Look for the OMRI seal, or check with your certification agent to make sure any potting mixes you buy do not contain prohibited materials such as synthetic fungicides, wetting agents, soluble fertilizers or other additives. Some folks like a soil-less potting mix made of sphagnum peat, vermiculite and perlite. Others like to start out with a compost or garden soil-type mix, with the addition of vermiculite, perlite and peat. To be sure that what you are buying meets your needs, you can either send a sample to a soil lab or get a home soil test kit. Make sure the pH is what you need, and experiment with a variety of soil amendments such as greensand, rock phosphate, earthworm castings, alfalfa and kelp meals to get the soil nutrient profile you want. You can also mix in kelp/fish emulsion with your water as the plants grow larger to give them an additional boost as they mature. To lessen problems with damping off fungus, try to make sure to let the soil dry out on top periodically and spread a coat of vermiculite over the seeds when you plant them, instead of soil. ATTRA has an excellent free bulletin on organic potting mixes, go to www.attra.org or call 800-346-9140 for a free copy.
- Plan for Green Manure.
Advance planning is also an important part of having healthy crops. Hopefully, you have a green manure already planted on your vegetable ground, so that next spring you can till this in, feed those soil microbes and increase your organic matter. If not, for the crops that are planted after the last spring frost, consider planting some oats in the spring as a mid to late May plowdown. Depending on the weather, you could get oats in and have 3-4 weeks of growth before you need to till them in and transplant your tomatoes, peppers, squash or potatoes. For an early summer planting of squash, try letting your winter-planted rye crop mature enough so that it is starting to set seed heads, then go through the area and mow the crop. If you have a heavy-duty enough transplanter, or are doing this by hand in a home garden, you can then put summer squashes into this mulch without needing to do any tillage or having to spread mulch. Steve Pincus and Beth Kazmar had fairly good success with this method last summer. This offers possibilities for fall-harvested brassicas, cucumbers or other crops as well. Many large crop growers are using this method, except they “roll down” the rye crop with a specialized roller/crimper (you must kill the crop or it will stand back up) and they then no-till drill soybeans into it. No cultivating or tillage is needed for more than a full season…..and you gain lots of decaying organic matter at the same time as you are getting weed control and water retention. For warm soil-loving crops such as peppers and tomatoes, this may not be the best system, but you can experiment here and there with a variety of techniques and crops and see what works best for you. I like this type of system since I am not bringing in hay from another operation, which may have weed seeds that I do not want to add to my own soil seed bank. Even a thick spring oat crop allowed to mature to producing seed heads when mowed would be killed sufficiently and could work as a midsummer mulch for a late planted crop. The possibilities are endless! In addition to trying new production methods this year, remember to continue your planning with the important standbys: crop rotation, field sanitation, and timing.
- Potato Tips.
If you sell or use most of your potatoes late in the season, plant only a few potatoes early for those summer “new” potatoes and wait 2-3 weeks after the last spring frost to plant your main crop. My husband and I have been doing this for years, and we have very little Colorado potato beetle pressure on our late potatoes. We seem to miss the main flights of these insects. We have a small patch for summer potatoes and hand picking off the bugs is not too much of a chore (I like to wear gloves and then the squishing and orange dye doesn’t bother me as much as with my bare hands). I have considered bringing my cordless dustbuster out into the garden and sucking up the bugs, since bug vacuums are used in large commercial potato operations, but I haven’t tried it yet. We already have one vacuum that is dedicated to sucking up asian lady beetles, which thankfully have not been too bad the past few years.
- Protect Your Compost.
Don’t put diseased plants into your compost pile unless you are sure that it is heating up sufficiently to kill the pathogens. For home gardeners with smaller growing areas, it may be best to completely remove diseased plants from your garden and either burn them or landfill them, rather than tilling them in. This is especially important if it is difficult to rotate crops far enough away from where they were in previous years.
Planning for next summer’s vegetables is probably as important as tillage, planting and harvesting, if you want to improve upon last year and have the best year ever! Happy dreaming…
Harriet Behar is the MOSES Outreach Specialist. She was an organic inspector and inspector trainer for many years and has an organic bedding plant and vegetable operation with her husband in Southwest WI.
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