Finding Fruition

Isolation

The nice thing about being a seed farm is the small acreage needed to produce our seed.

You know what the tough thing about being a seed farm is? The small acreage needed to produce our seed.

Success PM yellow straightneck summer squash

Success PM yellow straightneck summer squash

Varieties of the same species can cross-pollinate: our Success PM squash could cross with others varieties of Cucurbita pepo growing in the next row over. Not necessarily a big deal if you’re growing for vegetables because you won’t notice any differences in the first generation. The impact of the cross-pollination shows up in the second generation. And this is a big deal if you’re growing for seeds: you need to make sure the squash seeds you’re selling – the second generation – actually produce the squash shown on the label, not some cross-pollinated randomness.

Isolation is critical with these varieties.

Distance is the primary way to isolate. But cucurbits like squash, melon, and cucumbers need up to two miles of separation because bees and other pollinators can range that far. We’re lucky to have several different fields throughout the Finger Lakes that we work; we can grow varieties of the same species in completely separate spaces.

Mike Mazourek, genius plant breeder, checking our work.

Mike Mazourek, genius plant breeder, checking our work.

But even the best-conceived plans to isolate are subject to change without notice. This season we rearranged field plans because a neighbor down the road was growing a variety of squash that could cross with one of ours. We also got access to some new varieties that weren’t accounted for in the original field layout.

Just turns out that sometimes you have to plant varieties of the same species in the same field, right next to each other.

Isolation by time is a technique to use when distance is not an option. You bring a variety to bloom either before or after the cross-pollinating variety blooms. We’re experimenting with this kind of isolation with our carrots because it’s notoriously easy for them to cross with Queen Anne’s Lace.

Physical barriers is another way to isolate. Trees and topography can create breaks on a large scale. Within a single field you can do things like hand pollinate, cover individual plants with bags or nets, or tape the flowers shut. You can even set up an isolation cage over an entire section of your field with the help of one of the smartest plant breeders at Cornell University.

There’s really nothing special about the cage that Mike Mazourek brought us. It’s just a big tent: a framework of metal pipes covered by a heavy-denier, small-weave mesh. The ground edges are all buried under soil and rocks. Each end is a zippered entry point. Nothing high tech or fancy. Not even the set up procedure: pounding 8-foot pipes into the ground with a sledge and then pulling the mesh body over the pipes.

Isolation cage, finished.

Isolation cage, finished.

Here’s the catch with isolation: keeping the bees away from our Success PM squash to prevent cross-pollination also means we’re keeping away the bees that the squash need for self-pollination.

The solution?

We’re going to release a hive of bees into the cage to spend the season exclusively pollinating the Success PM.

You know what the best thing about being a seed farm is? All the incredibly cool shit we get to do.

***
Additional Info:
Dr. Michael Mazourek, Plant Breeding & Genetics, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University,

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Another experiment: Mystery Cucumbers

Mystery cucumbers in the dump bucket.

Mystery cucumbers in the dump bucket.

I’ve got another experiment going in the garden.

I found several cucumber sprouts growing in my dump bucket. About a week after I had dumped them there. So instead of direct seeding cucumbers in the new raised bed, I decided to transplant these sprouts

I’m a fan of perseverance, happy to reward it. And be rewarded by it: these sprouts will put me at least a week ahead of direct seeding.

I selected the two most robust sprouts: tallest, straightest, biggest true leaves showing. Removing them from the mish-mash of soil in the bucket required a bit of care; their roots ended up almost entirely exposed. But with a good soaking of diluted fish emulsion and carefully setting their roots in contact with the new soil, the sprouts seem to be doing fine so far.

Of course, I have no idea what varieties these cucumbers are. Green Finger? Poona Kheera? Little leaf? It’ll be something good, no worries.

This experiment was inspired by a day at the farm, working our muck land field. We were roguing cucumber sprouts that were just reaching up past the plastic and replanting holes where nothing had come up.

In some of the holes, there were two or three good-looking sprouts; we could keep only one. Instead of tossing the extra sprouts aside as part of the roguing process, we transplanted them to the empty holes.

Again, the rewards of perseverance: we get to keep the most vigorous cucumbers that have sprouted and won’t be put behind by starting over from new seed.

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Tomato Anxiety

Tomatoes from my first year growing.

Tomatoes from my first year growing. The only tomatoes.

Tomato Anxiety is a common affliction among mid-level growers like myself. It’s a deep-rooted fear that you’re going to catastrophically screw up the tomatoes in your garden and get nothing for the season.

As irrational as the fear may seem to those who have never suffered from it, the condition is very much based on real world experiences. In my own case, it comes from two successive seasons of failed tomatoes. Two years ago my novice efforts failed to produce much of anything. Last year my significantly-improved efforts were rewarded with Late Blight which, again, resulted in no tomatoes.

This year I’m working on the farm and will have access to more tomatoes than I can handle when we harvest seed. I will have had a hand in producing these tomatoes from beginning to end. You’d think this would put my fears to rest.

But Tomato Anxiety is a complex condition that defies common sense and logic. Perhaps because I’m working on the farm and growing “professional” tomatoes, my anxiety is increased; I should know what I’m doing.

To really understand the inner workings of Tomato Anxiety, it’s best to refer to the wisdom of Bruce Lee:

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

Before I started growing my own food, a tomato was just a tomato. After I started growing my own food, a tomato was no longer a tomato. It became both a thing and an event that now confounds me with its complexity. I am only now beginning to walk to path of understanding the Art of Tomato. For comparison, consider the other ends of this learning spectrum.

A tomato is just a tomato. I’ve talked with many novice gardeners at market this season who were confident in their own inexperience growing tomatoes. One woman proudly told me she had just planted her seeds. In the ground. In the second week of June. In western New York.

“It’s a little late for that,” I said conversationally, wanting to encourage her novice efforts. “If they don’t come up, don’t be disappointed.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” she replied with complete assurance. “I’ve grown them this way before.”

A tomato is a tomato. I’ve talked with Petra many times, usually starting with questions about how we’re planting tomatoes on the farm and gradually slipping in questions about my own at home. I get the feeling she is amused with my condition. But she has been infinitely patient and supportive of my needs as well.

The tomatoes growing in a 1:1 mix of organic soil and manure.

The tomatoes growing in a 1:1 mix of organic soil and manure.

“It all depends,” she said one day as we discussed whether or not to pluck the first flowers from newly transplanted tomatoes. “Just experiment and see what happens this season.”

The response in my brain went something like this: Experiment? Are you f-ing kidding me? I want tomatoes, woman, not just another blog post at the end of the season.

Petra is, of course, correct. Because when you’re a mid-level grower, experimentation is all you can do. There are no “right” answers. A tomato is no longer just a tomato.

In my efforts to understand the Art, I have seven tomato plants growing at home. Six of them are in raised beds I built from repurposed pallets.

A Gold Medal and a Black Prince share one bed. A Gardener’s Sweetheart and a Black Cherry share another. These tomatoes are planted in a 1:1 mixture of organic potting soil reclaimed from last year and seasoned cow manure compost.

The tomatoes growing in an experimental mixture of workshop dirt and manure.

The tomatoes growing in an experimental mixture of workshop dirt and manure.

Two Gardener’s Sweethearts share the third bed. They are planted in an experimental 1:1 mixture of compost and dirt reclaimed from my workshop floor. I wouldn’t call it “soil” yet.

The seventh plant is a mystery. It was labeled “Glacier” but didn’t look like any of the other Glacier plants. So Matthew gave it to me to grow out. It’s planted in a 1:1 mixture of new organic soil and manure, in a 10 gallon pot. If it is a Glacier variety, it’s semi-determinate and should do fine in the pot.

“Just experiment and see what happens.” Right.

Here we go.

Categories: compost, Finding Fruition, food, garden | 2 Comments

Spinach

That gnarly bed of spinach.

Our gnarly bed of spinach.

It’s funny what you end up learning on the farm on any given day.

Today we learned about spinach. Not because that was the plan. It’s just what we happened to notice.

While putting up the hoop house, I walked by a bed full of tall, green, gnarly looking plants. I thought it was spinach.

“Is this spinach?” I asked.

“That is spinach,” replied Matthew.

Spinach is dioecious, having separate male and female plants. When it comes time to bolt, male plants send up stems with countless staminate flowers along its length.

Pisitllate flowers on a female plant.

Pisitllate flowers on a female plant.

Male plants can be “extreme”, flowering early and for only a short period of time; or “vegetative”, flowering later but for much longer. In either case, their pollen is very light and predominantly transferred by wind to the female.

The female plants send up a stem with pistillate flowers along its length. They typically flower at the same time as the “vegetative” males. In our field, the females appeared much shorter than the male plants.

In both males and females, the flowers are dull and look more like plain, little buds. Because spinach cross pollinates by wind, the flowers don’t have to be showy to attract insects.

Spinach is typically a cool-weather, leafy annual. The plant originated from the Middle East and evolved to produce seed before the start of the hottest and driest weather; the seed would lay dormant until the cool, wet season returned.

Our modern spinach generally follows this same cycle: it bolts as we move into summer. This is caused by the increased amount of daylight. But heat can contribute to the speed of bolting once flowering has begun.

spinach2

Pollen from the spinach.

“Is that a male plant?” I asked.

Kim gave the tall, budded stem a good whack. A cloud of pollen burst into the air and slowly began to drift away.

“That is a male plant,” she replied.

“Just be sure you’re sending pollen in the right direction,” said Matthew.

Smart-ass comments are a common price we pay for getting smarter at the farm.

**
Additional Info:
Navazio, J. (2012). The Organic Seed Grower.

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Racing the Rain

A diluted fish and kelp emulsion.

A diluted fish and kelp emulsion.

We raced the rain today. Dark clouds were gathering strength by the time I arrived this morning.

“Moist soil is great for transplanting,” said Matthew. “Wet soil is not.”

In front of us were trays of young plants: King Crimson peppers, Violetta Lunga eggplant, and a variety of tomatoes simply called “Italian Heirloom”. Probably because whoever originally passed on the tomato seed didn’t know what variety they really were.

All of these plants needed to get in the ground before the skies opened up. Which sounds easy enough. But consider this: putting these plants in this field was never part of the original plan. There was some rearranging to do.

There was old row cover to tear up and new row cover to put down. New holes to cut in the cover with our knives. New holes to dig in the soil by trowel and hand.

There was compost to haul to the field in an old wheelbarrow, from the giant pile at the other end of the warehouse. We put a handful in each hole we made, mixed it into soil with our fingers.

There was fish and kelp emulsion to spray on the transplants to ease their transition. Stress is inevitable when moving plants from pot to earth. Spraying this nutrient mixture on their roots helps to minimize the shock. We popped the plants from their containers and lay one by each hole, soaking their roots one by one with a backpack sprayer.

The transfer from pot to earth.

The transfer from pot to earth.

And then, finally, we placed the plants in the ground. Tickling their roots lightly, giving them permission to grow in directions other than the shape of the pot. Massaging soil and compost into place. Covering the plants deep enough to keep the potting soil from wicking moisture up and way from the roots.

Rumblings of thunder made us stop and look up from our work. The clouds were closing in with streaks of rain. We ran and grabbed our rain gear. But at the last minute, the clouds turned north and moved along the other side of the ridge. We watched them break up and soften along their new path.

A lucky break.

But in the distance new clouds were gathering, dark bellies full of thunder.

Back to work. The race wasn’t over yet.

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How to Build a Field

boots

Removing the boots.

Step 1: Remove boots
When I arrived at the farm today, everyone was in the second field. Pat was working ankle deep in the soft, brown soil. Barefoot.

“Bonus points,” I said, commenting on his lack of shoes.

“Yeah, man. It’s the only way to work.” Pat paused for a moment, leaning on the handle of his McLeod. “It keeps you grounded. You should try it.”

“You are so right,” Petra said suddenly, with great excitement. She kicked her own shoes to the edge of the field.

A little peer pressure can go a long way. My boots came off and my bare toes went into the soil.

Step 2: Form beds
The field had been disked and hilled already. Our work for the day was beginning with shaping the hills into actual raised beds to plant in.

field2

Shaping the beds.

We worked as a crew, with rake and French hoe and McLeod. Two of us gathered loose soil from the pathways, mounding the beds even higher. A third person followed, flattening the tops of the beds into a smooth planting surface.

The flow of our work and conversation was interrupted at times by the thick, tangled root clumps of winter rye. The rye had been planted as cover crop the previous season and then turned back into the soil this season. One of the benefits of rye as a cover crop is its allelopathic effects: rye releases compounds into the soil that inhibit the germination and growth of weed seeds.

But rye’s allelopathic nature also has the potential to inhibit the growth of other plants, like the sunflowers and tomatoes and peanuts we plan to put in the ground.

Petra, Pat, and I stopped frequently to pull thick tangles of rye from the soil and toss them away.

driptape

Laying the drip tape.

Step 3: Lay drip tape
This was the easiest task of the day.

The plastic drip tape comes on a large spoil. Matthew stuck a broom handle through the spool and set it on the handles of an old wheelbarrow. Pat grabbed the end of the tape and walked the length of the first bed; Matthew monitored his MacGyver set-up to make sure the tape unspooled smoothly. When Pat reached the far end, we cut the tape and moved to the next bed.

For each bed, we connected the drip tape to the water system at one end and tied a triple granny knot at the other.

“Use your best Boy Scout skills,” said Matthew.

Step 4: Lay row covers
Pulling out the row covers from storage was the least desirable task of the day.

I use the word “storage” loosely here: the covers were pilled high in one corner of our barn, with no markings as to their lengths, widths, or vegetable variety. It was a musty, dusty time muscling 150-foot lengths of material from the pile and unfolding them. We measured and cut the covers to the needed length and width. With scissors. 150 feet.

But as with all tasks at the farm, it got done. And we hauled the row covers from the barn to the field in the back of Petra and Matthew’s old pick-up. An engine and four wheels surrounded by rust, held together with a double coat of bed liner paint over the entire body.

Laying the row covers.

Laying the row covers.

Technically, you’re not a real farmer without a truck like this.

We laid out the row covers on the beds in a planned pattern: adjacent covers overlapped in the pathway, in the predominant direction of the wind, with planting holes centered on each bed. The material was held in place with sandbags, also transported from the barn in the old pick-up.

Step 5: Put boots on and run for cover
All that remained was to start planting. But that would be another day.

Dark clouds had been slowly gathering and obscuring the blue sky throughout the afternoon. As if on cue, when the final row cover was in place, the first drops of rain began to fall.

Slipping dirty, happy feet back into my boots, I made my way out of the field before the rain came down in earnest.

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Flashy Trout Back: a new project

I got myself a simple garden experiment this season: growing Flashy Trout Back for seed at home.

Forellenschuss. Bam.

Flashy Trout Back is lettuce. An heirloom lettuce, believe it or not. My first encounter was in the greenhouse at the farm, while I was rearranging plants. The deep wine-red splattered on its leaves completely stood out from the surrounding trays of uniform green.

“Forellenschuss?” I asked, reading the tag and butchering the word.

“Forellenschuss,” replied Matthew, in mock German and with superior pronunciation. “Flashy Trout Back.”

Literally, “speckled like a trout’s back.” It’s a lettuce variety that can be found as far back as 1793 in Austria.

Ironically, I couldn’t find any extra seed in our inventory. All of it had been planted for starters.

So I grabbed myself a couple extra packs of those starters and decided to grow it out at home. This, of course, is the beauty of open-pollinated seed.

I planted some in the boxes on the porch, some in a couple pots, and some in the ground on the west wide of the house. We’ll see how many different ways I can get it to grow. Then I’ll harvest and eat some; leave the best selections to go to seed.

Then, after I got everything planted and squared away, it occurred to me: cross pollination. I’ve planted the Flashy Trout Back right next to a whole bunch of other lettuce varieties.

According to John Navazio, the potential for cross-pollination is pretty low in lettuce because it’s highly self-pollinated and the flowers “remain closed until pollination and fertilization has been completed.” But it’s still possible. Because of insects.

Navazio recommends isolation distances of 150 feet without reliable barriers and 50 feet with such barriers. Fruition Seeds recommends distances as close as 20 feet.

I’m working with distances of one foot.

So the isolation plan for my Flashy Trout Back is going to be based on time, not space: I’ll harvest or remove the other varieties before they even get close to flowering.

Leaving only the Flashy Trout Back to go to seed.

**
Additional Info:
Davis-Hollander, L. (2012, March/April). Beyond Iceberg: Heirloom Lettuce Varieties Offer Color and Flavor. http://www.grit.com/farm-and-garden/heirloom-lettuce-varieties-zm0z12maznem.aspx#ixzz32gQz9iXq

Nash, D. A Leaf out of History. http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/leaf-out-history

Navazio, J. (2012). The Organic Seed Grower: A Farmer’s Guide to Vegetable Seed Production.

Uprising Seeds. Flashy Trouts Back. http://uprisingorganics.com/vegetables/lettuce-lactuca-sativus-/romaine/flashy-trouts-back/prod_27.html

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Economy of Movement

shovel

Our work for the day: spreading manure.

Today we spent two hours spreading six tons of cured chicken manure over 1,200 square feet of field. In the midday sun. By hand. With the wind blowing it back in our faces.

Crazy, even by farming standards. But it’s work that had to get done: rain and storms were on the way.

Two things made accomplishing this task possible. And bearable.

The first is the quality of the field we were working on.

It’s a new field and it has the most beautiful soil I’ve ever seen. Black. Rich. Loamy. Beautiful. Jump on it and the whole ground shakes like a thick wet sponge. It simply begs to have seeds grown in it.

soil

Beautiful soil.

The second thing is economy of movement.

Work like this can quickly deteriorate into flailing: just move the shovel as fast as you can and let the crap land where it may. But flailing wears you out, it makes the work take longer, and it doesn’t get you the results you want. You might as well leave the manure in piles if you don’t spread it right.

So you focus on one pile at a time. Make sure you have a comfortable grip on the shovel and a comfortable stance on the earth. Move just the right amount of manure with each motion. Apply only enough energy to send the manure as far as it’s needed, where it’s needed. Work to one side and then the other. Work with the wind when you can. Close your eyes when you can’t. Move on to the next pile.

Economy of movement is the trick to everything we do on the farm. And I have discovered where my own economy can improve.

Matthew and Pat raced by me when we were repotting at the greenhouse and planting in the main field. I felt slow finding the most efficient motions to accomplish these tasks.

potting

Repotting a tomato seedling.

Carefully popping transplants from their cells. Staging them in three-inch pots. Massaging the new soil down around their roots while gently supporting the seedling. Cover to the right depth but don’t cover the crown. Set aside and move to the next pot.

Drive your trowel into the row. Pull the soil back. Drop the new transplant in. Push the soil back and pat down. A series of individual motions done in one fluid dance.

Once I found the motions and my rhythm, I was able to keep pace with Matthew and Pat. Almost.

Petra is the fastest of us all. A machine in speed and seamless motion. Petra is out of my league. For now.

The goal is to waste no effort but to spare no care. There is too much to do. Too much to do right.

“We’re living the good life,” Matthew announced from behind his cheap paper dust mask, after slinging manure in a well-placed arc.

sit

The good life.

The sky was bright and blue. The sun was shining. Swallows skimmed over the field. We made short work of the piles and had time to sit beneath a tree at the end of the field. Talking of soil, stinging nettles, the wind turbines on the distant ridge, and old 80s pop culture. Reaping the benefits of our economy.

The good life, indeed.

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Celeriac and Peas

A truly glorious day on the farm today. And my first day in the fields.

Planting celeriac and peas.

celeriac

This is the kind of celeriac we’re selecting for.

Celeriac is tough to like at first glace: it’s a pale, knotty, knobby root vegetable with a squid-like mass of tangled root structure hanging from its bottom end. But in a vigilant effort to prevent any misinformed opinion from taking shape, Petra is quick to sing the praises of celeriac as she unpacks each one from its Winter storage in layers of hay. You can roast it, peel it and use the peels as soup stock, or – rumor has it – you can mash it just like potatoes with butter and garlic. Even a raw slice in the middle of the field tastes good: celeriac’s smooth, white meat has a creamy texture and tastes a bit like celery.

This is the first time we’ll be planting celeriac for seed. It’s a biennial and needs two years to reproduce. These bulbs have been in cold storage for a year and, before putting them into the ground, we make a final selection for highest quality.

Preferred celeriac are large like a softball, heavy and solid in your hand, have a healthy stem growing from the tip, have a large tangle of root structure hanging from the bottom, and have no open wounds or mold penetrating the skin. It’s quite a process looking over each one.

celeriac2

Successfully in the ground.

It’s also quite a process to get each bulb in the ground. You need to get the roots aimed down into the hole, or they grow upwards and pinch themselves off. You need to get soil around the root structure after the bulb is settled, or they’ll die out and sap energy from the plant as they regrow. You need to sit the bulb deep enough so the tip with the stem is just poking above the ground, and don’t break off the stem as you move to the next one.

Of course, Matthew has a clever trick for getting the bulbs in the ground with greater ease: a gas-powered auger that bores softball-sized holes six inches deep into the beds.

That’s how we roll.

peas

Peas waiting to go in the ground.

In contrast, planting peas is easy. It’s just a matter of pushing them into the ground with a finger, one inch deep and two inches apart.

However, the labor compounds: 600 peas to push in over fifty feet of bed.

Then there’s the rocky soil, which frequently puts bits of stone right where a pea should go. Will the stones block or impede growth of the peas?

“Don’t worry about it, just shove ‘em in there,” said Matthew. “Seeds are smart. They’ll figure it out.”

And if they don’t, they’re not the seeds we want anyway.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

To Rogue

Rogue: v. To remove inferior or defective plants or seedlings from a crop.

We spent another blustery, rainy day in the greenhouse today.

Roguing.

At this early point in a plant’s lifecycle, we’re selecting for sprouts that are most vigorous and growing true to type. The easiest sign to identify is size: select the biggest seedling in each cell. But depending on the specific variety of plant, there are other important details you should pay attention to when roguing.

rogue1

Gold Medal tomato sprouts

With lettuce, the first true leaves were the key indicator: we were looking at color and shape. We also decided it was important to pay attention to the size of the true leaves when considering the overall size of the sprout; better to keep a smaller sprout with the biggest true leaves in the cell than the biggest sprout that was mostly cotyledons.

Tomatoes were a little different. While overall size was important, the stoutness of the stem was a deciding factor; tall sprouts with stems that were thin, spindly or crooked were removed. When it comes to transplanting more mature tomato starters into the ground, you want them to be short, stout, and hearty.

Spending a whole morning plucking seedlings out of cell trays can feel repetitive and pointless. But it’s actually a critical step in what we do at Fruition Seeds: investing our efforts and energy only in those plants that will produce the best seed possible.

And those rogued lettuce sprouts do make a nice addition to lunch, too.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

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