Saturday, March 20, 2010

Vernal Equinox

It is time to celebrate!  Today is the vernal equinox and Spring has officially arrived.

When I saw how quickly some of the plants have begun to grow, I started wondering about how fast the daylength is increasing this time of year.  It turns out we are gaining almost two minutes of daylight each day right now.  According to the Daylength Table provided by the US Naval Observatory, we will gain a half hour of daylight between March 10 and March 26.  That is about a 4% increase.  It doesn't sound like a lot, but it adds up.  Every day the plants are getting a little more energy with which to grow.

The fava bean plants, which survived the winter but seemed to be in a holding pattern, now are growing like crazy.  I am probably exaggerating a bit, but it seems they are growing measurably every day.  They are full of blossoms, but we haven't seen any bean pods yet.  I don't see any pollinators around the plants, either.  This is the first time we have grown favas, so we aren't quite sure what to expect.  Anyway, the blossoms are beautiful and have a nice scent.

While I was looking around for information, I found a neat webpage, Daylight Hours Explorer from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which will give you a graph of daylight hours during the year for a specific latitude.  Being a math tutor, I couldn't help but notice that daylight hours is a sinusoidal function.  So if your children ever complain that they will never use any of the math they are learning in school, just show them this website.  I'm sure it will change their minds. ;-)

On the subject of daylight hours, Ed and I learned something interesting when we were in Alaska a few years ago.  Those extremely long days during the Arctic summer produce record-sized vegetables - who would have guessed!  We attended the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, and I was fascinated by these huge vegetables.  The exhibit we saw was limited because there had been very bad flooding in the area and a lot of farmers had not yet made it to the fair.  Still, I got this photo of a world-record-setting kohlrabi.

That sucker was huge - as big as a beach ball and over 80 lbs!  The kohlrabis we got out of our garden this winter (and we were quite pleased with the size and the flavor) weighed less than one pound apiece, with the leaves.  Anyway, at the time I took this photo, I would never have dreamed we would be running a vegetable farm within a few years.  I guess the fact that I was taking photos of vegetables while we were on vacation, something my friends at the time pointed out was a very weird thing to do, should have clued me in!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Has Sprung

The equinox is still a few days away, but signs of spring have sprung up all around us in the past week or so.  Pretty little wildflowers are starting to bloom in our yard and along the roads in the area.  There are dogwood, redbud, ornamental pear and tulip magnolia trees in bloom in our neighborhood.  We see leaves coming out on the sweet gum trees.  There is yellow pine pollen in the air and lots of fuzzy seed cases are dropping from the elm trees.

Everything is waking up, including the weeds.  The ash trees apparently had a fantastic year last year because there are hundreds of little ash trees coming up everywhere.  I remember seeing a lot of the whirligig seed casings on the ground back in the fall, but I didn't think about the consequences at the time.  The sprouts are easy to pull up when they are young, but there are so many of them that we have had to step up our weeding in the garden lately.

We planted our first round of squash seeds in one of the new rows a few days ago.  Snap beans are next - I can hardly believe it!  Everything is moving so quickly.  We are planning to do five successive planting of squash, one per week, to stay ahead of the squash vine borers.  We will cover them with insect barrier (floating row cover) until they start to bloom, then will have to uncover them to let the pollinators in.

The overwintered sugar snap pea plants are blooming again.  The healthiest plant has three pea pods on it. I can't believe how quickly the pods have developed.  Unfortunately, there are only a few of these older plants.  We hope the new plants will start to bloom soon.

The weather has been just about perfect lately.  We are keeping our fingers crossed that there will be no more freezes this spring.  So far, the weather forecast looks great.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

February Frenzy, March Madness

We have our own version of March Madness here at Rain Song Farm, though it really started in February.  We have been planting like crazy.  Actually, planting continues year-round, but it certainly gets more intense this time of year.

We start the majority of our early spring crops in flats or pots, but some are hardy enough to be direct-seeded in the garden.  These include sugar snap peas, beets, arugula, chard, and radishes.  We started the sugar snap peas on January 3; now they are big enough to cling to the trellis.  I am expecting them to really take off climbing now that the days are lengthening rapidly and we are having some warm weather (it is 75 deg as I am writing this).

We planted several rounds of Brassica family (cabbage relatives) and lettuce family seeds in flats starting in mid-January.  The Brassicas include broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage, broccoli raab and kohlrabi.  Weather permitting, seedlings from the first flats of lettuces and Brassicas will go in the ground this weekend.

In the photo above, the flat in front has several varieties of lettuces; the ones on the left were planted about two weeks before the ones on the right.  The flat behind the lettuces has, from left to right, broccoli raab, Chinese cabbage, kale, and three rows of broccoli.  These have all been growing outside under a canopy on all but the coldest days and have done very well considering the lack of pampering.

The Nightshade family plants, on the other hand, have been pampered, though they recently graduated from the house to the greenhouse.  We started the first tomato seeds at the end of January and the first peppers and eggplants on Valentine's Day.  The photo below shows some of the first set of tomatoes which have been transplanted from the flat into 4" pots.  They aren't very big, but they are working on their second set of true leaves.

These tomato seedlings may be ready to plant out in the garden in a couple of weeks, but I think we will wait a bit longer than that.  The winter this year has been so cold that we are a little hesitant to put out any tender plants, especially those as important as tomatoes.  We will probably plant at least a week behind what we did last year.  That may mean a delay in the harvest later in the spring, but is a lot better than no harvest at all because all the plants died in a late freeze.  After all the effort that went into selecting the varieties, ordering the seeds, preparing the propagation soil, planting the seeds and babying the seedlings (plus saving them from a ravenous cat), I don't want to be running to a garden center in early April to buy fungicide-laden replacements.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rotation Gyrations

We are in the process of revising our crop rotation scheme, and even though our garden is small (for a market grower, that is), it is still giving us headaches.  No matter how well we think we have planned ahead, little snags keep popping up.

As organic and sustainable farmers, we know the value of rotating crops.  The practice helps us minimize soil-borne diseases and soil depletion.  It also makes the insects work a little harder, though if they hatch from last year's squash patch, they only have to travel a few feet to get to this year's patch.

When you are growing a variety of vegetables, trying to cover all the major families, in a limited space, the rotation scheme can quickly get out of hand.  I don't know how we would ever have figured it out without help.  We started with the 8-plot home garden rotation recommended by Dr. Bob Randall in his book Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston.  Dr. Randall is a founder of Houston's amazing organization Urban Harvest and is probably the leading expert on growing food crops in the Houston area.

We have since outgrown the 8-plot rotation, and have also found over the last year that we want to allocate the growing area a little differently.  Dr. Randall is a lot more fond of tropical squashes than we are, and we definitely needed more room for the nightshade family (tomato, pepper, eggplant, tomatillo) than he has in his plan.  We now have 15 rows in the main garden, so I developed a 5-section rotation with 3 rows per section.

It was a nice, tidy scheme, in theory.  The reality of transitioning has been less pretty.  It is complicated because most of the produce we will sell in the first few weeks of the spring farmer's market was planted last fall.  At that time we were still trying to crowd everything into the original 8 rows.  Now we are entering the spring planting frenzy and keep finding that there are healthy, productive plants in the way of the new plantings.  Every other week it seems there is another little snag.  We have to prepare rows for the tomatoes, but the overwintering kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are still there, growing nicely.  There are beautiful lettuce plants in the row we will need soon for spring legumes.

So it feels like we are doing a little dance right now, trying to keep the priority on the new crops, but not wanting to tear out existing plants.  Some of them are going into the compost; at least the nutrients will be recycled into the garden.  We have also been able to relocate a plant or two.  Some lush, green cilantro and parsley plants happened to be in the way of the new bush beans.  Ed dug up a couple and moved them.

He is standing behind the row from which he dup up the plant; its new home is the row behind him.  Just a few feet away.  It seems a little silly, but the rotation is important for the overall health of our garden. We hope the plants survive being disturbed.

Once we get well into the spring, these problems should go away.  Unless we realize we left something out of the rotation plan completely.  "Time to plant the peanuts... where the heck do they go?  Uh-oh!"  I hope that doesn't happen!