Thursday, October 11, 2012

Autumn Harvest

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market where we at the test gardens look into another one of the horticultural issues of the day. Today however the conversation is about winter preparations and cold season produce. Our gardener friends up north have already seen 40 degree temperatures and we in the south know the temperature is soon to start dropping and say low. So what is a gardener to do about the theoretical bleakness of winter? Well the answer is clear, now is the time to get those last additions to the garden in the ground. Last week we covered the things you might want to consider when planting but I don’t think we covered it all so today we are going to cover that but first a slight note about the plants of note and an important update.


You know what’s funny, under the guise of company supply inspection I get to travel the state looking into what’s new. About half the time the plant geek in me wins out and I have to explain why I bought to much of this and that and thus, often some portion of my own pay is in plants. Those outside the gardening zone would call this crazy but you know, getting a new plant, seeing it succeed and then passing the cuttings on to others is the real reward of this job. Seeing another gardener’s face light up as they realize that this plant is the thing they wanted but never knew existed is what makes every penny, and every minute worth it. Today I have three plants in their absolute best for your viewing enjoyment. Two of the plants I have spoke of before but lacked good images to show you. The other plant is new but I think you will enjoy it.

Solanum quitoense – Bed of Nails

I once joked that the bed of nails is the exact plant you place under your teenage daughter's bed room window to ward off unwanted suitors, and now you see why. This member of the Nightshade family is made of thorns, and only gets worse once it dies as the thorns get harder and puncture clothing more readily. The fruit is edible and is said to have a pleasant citrus flavor. It's cousin, the Devil's Thorn may or may not bear edible fruit but does have bright orange-red spines and both are excellent low-care plants.

Heurnia zebrina – Life Saver Plant

Also here is a close up picture of a bloom from a life saver plant, its bloom was covered over the winter of 2012 but the plant was refusing to cooperate. As you can see it got its name for the red ring which is about the same size as the candy, not the floatation device. One of the things to remember when you have these guys is to water sparingly! They hate wet feet and will get rot at a glance especially during the winter so lay off on water in general. For note, these are related to stapellia, which is known as carrion flower but life saver plant does not have any aroma at all.

Cyrtomium falcatum Rochfordianum - Japanese Holly Fern

For a real-life view of these guys check the Fayetteville Technical Community College main campus, these ferns are tucked into corners all over the place. They handle traffic abuse, neglect and sun rather well. As for your own use treat them as somewhat hardier then average ferns and give them semi-shade or sun with morning or afternoon shade and make sure to enrich the soil then are to live in moderately before planting. These ferns are semi-evergreen depending on exposure.

This is a picture of the sweet potato bed, as you can see it’s a brick-walled raised bed. The bed’s total height is 14” tall and is 1’ 4”wide by 4’ 6” long. At the start of this year four sweet potato tubers totaling 10 ounces were planted in the sides while one 3 ounce Jerusalem Artichoke tuber was planted in the center.

 In the case of the test gardens our tuber beds are designed to be long and narrow with the bricks being laid dry without any mortar. As shown in the picture it facilitates harvesting, basically our first step is to lay out a tarp to catch spilled soil, and then remove the bricks in one side of the wall revealing the soil within.

 The second step is to cut away any above-ground vegetative growth and remove any anti-critter protections. In our case we lay bits of chicken wire over the bed and leave them there over the season until harvest. The sweet potatoes can grow right through the wire and so can the artichokes but squirrels can’t get at your tubers after planting. Once the top-growth and protections are gone you are free to dig gently with a trowel for your tubers.

This is an image of the excavated Jerusalem Artichoke‘s tubers before the dirt is shaken off, as you can see the tubers radiate outward neatly from the central mass but need a lot of cleaning.

 This is the resulting tuber harvest after the bulk of the soil is shaken off, as you can see there is a marked difference in yields between the two tuber crops. I’ll note the results a b it later but, the cleaning of the tubers is more about shaking and gently brushing off the obvious dirt. If you try to grow tuber crops you will have to wash them with water after to get all the soil and grit off.

At the test gardens we run a 365 day production schedule,  so the tuber bed come October and after the harvest is converted into a cold-seasonal bed. The bricks are replaced and 4” of removed soil is returned to the bed. After the soil is replaced, a light layer of poultry manure is added and then another 2” of excavated soil. This process is repeated until the soil level is close to the original depth before the harvest.

 The final phase in this operation is to plant the actual cold crops. In this case we have four red cabbage plants, which are one of the many cold crops grown in the test gardens.
It is very important to note that crop rotation is very important, monoculture or the intentional cultivation of the same crop in one area over a long period is generally a bad idea as most of our common food plants are being grown outside of their native regions. The perpetual propagation of a single crop depletes the soil over time and promotes the arrival of specific diseases and pests that can hurt your yield over time. I rotate crop positions and types multiple times in every year this process is as much to lower pest problems as is it is to test out new plant varieties that come to my attention. Last year the cold crop was Cabbage-Collards which performed incredibly, before that it was lettuce, next year I’m considering beets, Chard or heirloom carrots. As a final note the chicken wire protections were replaced temporarily until I could get some pine straw. Both work equally well but I prefer using longleaf pine straw as it lasts longer, seems to keep weeds down and of course as the property has five white pines, one loblolly and a longleaf pine most of our straw is home grown.

As a final note for this incredibly late post, in the tuber trials of 2012, Jerusalem Artichokes were the clear winner, in productivity, drought resistance and auxiliary advantages (food for pollinators). At a glance here are the harvest results:

| Crop         | # | ST Wgt.  | Harvest weight |  
| Sweet Potato | 4 |10 ounces | 3lbs, 15oz     |
| J. Artichoke | 1 | 3 ounces | 5lbs, 13oz     |

For comparison last year the sweet potatoes produced 7.5 pounds of tubers, using three seed tubers weighing 4 ounces each which amounts to 10 ounces of produce per 1 ounce of seed tuber. In a nutshell maybe this year’s sweet potato crop had a bad year, but, it is clear for the virtues of a lack of maintenance ease of propagation that the Jerusalem Artichoke is at least at this moment superior in sheer volume of food production. For cultivation purposes it is important to note that each sunchoke seed tuber has the potential to produce upwards of 200 new tubers in a given six-month growing year. In our case it produced 113 new tubers assuming we harvested all of them. It is very important to grow this crop in high raised beds or in large pots such as half-whiskey barrels. The one problem with the Jerusalem Artichoke is it’s potential to get loose of the fields that grow it and become a problem. While it isn’t nearly as bad as some species of mint or bamboo, it can become a problem warranting multiple uses of herbicide in the warmer climates.
At the least it warrants a new test for next year and, as soon as I have some good recipes for you I’ll post them up here.

As one of my landscaping clients mentioned, there was at one point a scam going around where farmers were persuaded to invest in planting Jerusalem Artichokes as the hunger-ending crop of the future. In theory given the care and culture requirements this could be true in other parts of the world. In the USA however, it is a specialty and or luxury item seen in places like Whole Foods, Kings and, Harris Teeter type supermarkets. My own seed tuber came from a package of tubers bought at the latter supermarket for 5.00 a pound before taxes. Basically there is a market for this crop, but it’s a luxury item not unlike Shitake mushrooms, black radishes and all the Asian-type cabbages. It is my thought that growing this crop for production means that it would need to be sold through unique margins such as farmer’s Markets or high-end supermarkets. The regular supermarkets such as Aldi’s, Pathmark, Food Lion, IGA, Stop & Shop, A&P and so on all might follow in the trend later but not yet.

As a final note, why would one want to eat a Jerusalem artichoke? The answer lay in its unique composition. The Jerusalem Artichoke is a member of the sunflower family and is known by it’s Latin name Helianthus tuberosus. The tubers when sliced thin can add extra flavor to salads, while if steamed are as good as potatoes with pepper salt and butter. Given the type of carbohydrates it is important to note that it takes less cooking to prepare Jerusalem artichokes in general and they require no peeling which makes for an interesting variant on mashed potatoes. In terms of flavor, the Jerusalem Artichoke is sweeter, and has a nutty flavor in comparison to white potatoes but to the unknowing, this may not be noticed as the tuber itself but the seasonings.

So this tops off another episode of Lost in the farmer’s Market. Our next episode covers the process of bed merging, we will have step-by-step photographic instructions on what it takes to combine existing beds.  Also remember, you have roughly three more weeks to get your cold crops in the ground so if you want cold season plants don’t dawdle the weather is already acting up.   

As always folks, Keep ‘em Growing!

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