Early Potatoes II

This is a continuation from the article Early Potatoes. In homage to the sun, I decided to wait until Summer Solstice, June 21, to dig up the golden yellow tubers, still a good month or two before most potatoes are ready. I was a little worried that I wouldn’t have anything to harvest so I gave the plants extra time to mature, turns out that was unnecessary. By the time I got my hands dirty I wasn’t disappointed with the results, the tubers were all the size of my fist. Within minutes they were on the BBQ and once served received a rave review from my guests that evening, an unexpectedly fine and delicate dish.

Some of my worry about the potoatoes came from the longer than expected wait to see them poke up above the soil. Normally I use my own stored potato seed, but this year I bought new seed that had been stored very well, too well in fact. Not only did the plants show up in the mail a little later than I wanted, but pre-sprouting them also took longer and with sprouts not achieving much size by planting time. My own cold storage is less than ideal and causes an early and more vigorous sprout that works well with an early planting. The other thing I noticed after digging them up was I had fewer but much larger tubers than I had experienced in the past.

earlypotatoesIn the UK potato varieties are classified into three categories: first earlies, second earlies, and main harvest. The first and second earlies are bred to tuber up several weeks before the main harvest varieties. Over here we call those potatoes new. Freshly dug new potatoes are a true delight and a real contrast from the large, bland and thick skinned kind you find in the stores. New potatoes are richer in flavor, full of moisture and have thin and delicate skins, so thin in fact I don’t ever bother pealing them. New potatoes also don’t store well, so they’re a true gardeners treat and can only be purchased seasonally from the farmers market.

No matter when you planted your own potatoes, or how long they take to mature, you can benefit from the taste of new potatoes buy harvesting a handful a few weeks after you see the flowers set. You can pull up the whole plant and harvest all of them, or carefully root around in the soil with your hand and pull just one or two from each plant to minimize root disturbance.

My favorite method of cooking new potatoes is on the outdoor grill. Place your gently washed potatoes onto a sheet of tinfoil, cut them in half if they’re too large. I like to add a few shallots or a fresh spring onion, whichever is most mature in the garden at the time. Then pull up some green garlic bulbs and add the cloves by the handful, or instead try using several garlic scapes. Then add add a tablespoon or two of good pastured tallow.  I also use lard, goose fat, duck fat or bacon grease (always from pastured animals) but tallow is my favorite. You can use olive oil but the potatoes are more likely to scorch and stick to the foil. I never ever use cheap vegetable oils as I believe them all to be mildly toxic. Complete the package by adding some fresh Thyme from the herb garden and sea salt, then carefully wrap it all up to minimize moisture loss and place it directly onto the hot grill. To time it right, I add the potatoes first as they do take some time to cook. They’re done when you can easily push a fork into the larger pieces all the way through.

If you have a favorite summer potato recipe please share.

~Sean

Blaming Weeds

My garden would be great if only I didn’t have these two weeds: Crabgrass and Bindweed.

Crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis). Every year this grassy weed quickly covers my soil with tiny seedlings from spring through summer. If I don’t aggressively keep the soil well swept of these millions, they’ll march rapidly ahead of my young vegetables, and if allowed to advance any further a dense smothering mat forms. If I weed often enough I can mitigate that damage by using a hoola-hoe or similar weeding tool cutting the young tender roots just below the soil surface. Inevitably I miss a few, many actually, and my only option of control is to pull each by hand, sometimes uprooting a nearby vegetables along with it. I learned this the hard way my very first gardening year, naively thinking how attractive the garden had become covered in so many harmless little green sprouts. What a disaster year that was. This is how the joy of gardening becomes work.

crabgrassA hundred crabgrass seedlings cover only a few inches of earth.

Field Bindweed (Convolvuls arvensis) is the most wicked weed of them all, even defying poison sprays as its roots grow six feet deep in almost no time at all, far from harms reach. Frustrating my best efforts, I seriously considered spraying with a toxic stew of man-made chemicals out of gardeners vengeance. In the end I decided against it, and believed that somehow I must manage this through weeding alone. Against this foe however, the more you weed, the more you break its roots, the more numerous it becomes. Where you pull one, two will grow, where you pull two, four will grow, and so it goes. When totally uncontrolled this dastardly organism can not tolerate coexistence with your more delicate vegetables, sprawling across the garden seeking out your tomatoes, peas and peppers, grabbing hold of them and choking them down to the ground as no plant could hate another so intensely. Desperately I searched for an answer from a wall of organic gardening manuals, finding but two possible solutions: spray poisons for many years or cover the soil with a suffocating plastic for many years, preferably both. It seems eradicating this plant can only occur by exhausting every last ounce of energy from its deep roots. Each year is the same as the one before, cursing and weeding, weeding and cursing.

bindweed1Bindweed spreading out in search of vegetables to prey upon.

I paused my work one afternoon and pondered this gardening fate. Was my soil short on chemicals to rescue it from these ills? Must I accept this botanical curse? I looked curiously at the bindweed I was trying to free from climbing a pole intended for peas, and realized my foe may actually be struggling. An unhealthy plant growing alongside a robust and healthy pea, sick and under attack by some unknown fungus. I found another not far away in a recently reclaimed area where I had planted potatoes, but it was healthy as any plant could be. Later that fall I sent in two soil samples for analysis and when combined with my notes it become quite clear, the soil conditions were ideal for my two great enemies, the recently reclaimed plot even more so.

bindweed2Weeds are the protectors of the soil and exist to restore fertility where degraded. My soil was in poverty having been mined of all its riches long ago, and constantly frustrated from restoration. A mineral balance ideal for weeds and grasses, but not for vegetables. Nutrient and energy restrictions supported a thriving weed population that competed well against what I had intentionally sown. The soil was often dry, receiving almost no rain all summer and fall and a dormant biology when I needed them most. Soil low in humic acid and struggled to perform effective aerobic breakdown of organic matter, a condition preferential for weeds. A subsoil that was also very dry, magnetically tight, airless and compacted preventing proper fermentation of plant residues. The surface was often left bare, suffering from intense summer sun, erosion and harsh winter weather, inducing crabgrass hormones to go ecstatic and sprout like mad as soon as a little water was added. The only means to combat the deep roots of bindweed is with antagonistic fungi, something my soil was in very short supply.

I understand now the folly of applying herbicides and covering the ground with plastic. These suffocating measures only work through total destruction of fertility, an extermination so intense that even the hardiest organism succumbs. Poverty soil for poverty vegetables.

The cause of my two weedy problem: a fragile natural environment disrupted by my ineptitude, a garden steward forcing plants to grow where they are not adapted and rejecting the ones that were. I had blamed the weeds when it was I that had granted them the right to thrive.

Having recognized this the task now is to restore fertility and beat out the weeds through nutrition, health and energy. The first thing I could do was establish a balance of the major minerals by applying amounts of gypsum, sulfates, manganese, zinc, copper, sodium, soft rock phosphate, etc. I added the missing rare earth minerals and improved the energy profile of the soil by applying finely ground basalt dust and humic acid. I then added food for the biology in the form of meals, raw milk, molasses, trace minerals, enzymes and vitamins. I provide support to all the plants now to produce excess carbons and encourage them to deposit their sugars into the soil for the biology to consume. I created and apply probiotic solutions to repopulate the earth in soil bacteria and fungi using good compost, teas and other live cultures. And I created a better biological home by adjusting my cultural practices, growing more green manures, avoid unnecessary digging and tilling, halted the removal of organic material from the surface, leaving it in place to decay and protect the soil as a digestible mulch.

Each year now improves and joy returns to gardening.

~Sean

Planting Soil Blocks

April may be my busiest time of year, and I am very late in my posting this month. One of those busy things is transplanting dozens of seed flats full of young plants. It’s now time for many of them to go outside.

My experience with Soil Blocks has been really great. I get very good results and avoid using pots whenever possible, but nothing ever goes as planned. This year I’ve noticed two problems. The first was I used a different brand of worm castings in a few trays. These plants struggled and it looked to me like there was a phosphorus deficiency and I found it necessary to supplement them with some liquid fertilizer to keep them going. The other problem I noticed was that for some of my plants I believe I started them a little too early in the season and by the time they were transplanted some of the lower leaves started to yellow, also indicative of a nutrient deficiency.

traysPictured here are many of my Brassica transplants: three varieties of kale, two broccoli types and a purple cauliflower. These seven trays had been growing in my basement for at least four weeks prior. A week before my transplant date I moved the young plants outside into the hoop house so that they can begin to feel what the outside world is like. This is called hardening-off.

The next step is to prepare the transplanting bed. I first used a hula-hoe or scuffle-hoe to quickly mop up any weeds that had germinated and pull any larger weeds. I then added some humic acid, kelp meal and some rock dust made of crushed basalt. Mix this into the top two or three inches, then rake the bed out flat.

Now I determine spacing, information usually given on the seed packet. I’ve learned that not all seed packet information is the same. I usually also look through a reference book or two and search the internet as well. Your experiences and individual soil conditions will also suggest differences. I do most of this look up during the winter months when I am stuck indoors and document them on my calender.

bedrowFor transplanting, the first step is to determine the plant spacing. Plant spacing is easy, it’s the distance recommended between each plant. Don’t confuse that with seed spacing, you want the final spacing between plants after thinning. I review, but usually ignore the row spacing. Row spacing is how many feet between growing rows if you’re farming, or as many gardeners do scaled-down farming. Pre-industrial gardening is a nearly forgotten art. Most gardeners base their knowledge on the experience of farming and scale that downwards into the garden space. The spacing used for farming is very inefficient and was born out of the need to accommodate a tractor.

For my Brassica’s, I started at the end of the four foot wide bed and measured out two rows for the broccoli and cauliflower, and three rows for the Kale. Please note that the distance between my rows is the plant spacing, NOT the row spacing. You can even go a little smaller if you stagger the transplants in each row. Another thing I’ve learned is to be sure and think about how your going to weed later in the season and to always leave enough room for your favorite weeding tool. I normally space my bed rows no less than 6-8 inches apart. Then I take a stick and carefully draw the rows down the length of the bed to mark them.

Now I extend the measuring tape down the length of the bed and fix it there. Using a hand hoe I quickly dig transplanting holes using the measuring tape to guide the spacing. When you have more than one row in the bed, I alternate the transplant holes. For example, with my kale I used 12 inch spacing and I dug holes down the first row on the foot markers (1, 2, 3, …). The second row I offset the holes by 6 inches (1.5, 2.5, 3.5, …), and for the third row I went back to the foot markers (1, 2, 3, …). This actually put each plant at about 13.5 inches apart. This gives you whats called BED SPACING. In the same space using traditional rows I would have only achieved two rows, not three, and I just increased my yield by 33%.

sbOnce all the holes are created, I decided to insert a small handful of high quality worm castings into each hole and mix it up by hand a little. Then I carefully lowered each block into its new home, but haven’t buried them just yet.

Since this blog is about Biological Gardening, how could I leave that out. I now mix in some beneficial bacteria with several gallons of water and use a watering can to wet each block well. After this I carefully bury each plant up to its cotyledons. The cotyledons were those first two seed leaves that formed after germination.

Since I did this work a few weeks ago now, I can also report how they are doing: The plants with the bad worm castings, have recovered and are now growing well, although they are still behind the others. The plants that were started a little too early are still alive and growing but they did struggle to get through a few light frost. The plants that were started indoors at the appropriate time, are doing amazingly well and are bright, green and happy. Despite the differences, of the 224 brassica plants featured here I haven’t lost a single one.

Why would the plants I started only one or two weeks earlier be struggling from a few light frosts when the others are so nice? Their brix was low because the block didn’t have enough nutrition to support that extra growth time. We can discuss this more in the fall, but a high brix plant is not phased by a little frost, as the extra sugar/nutrition lowers the freezing point of the plant.

Cheers,

~Sean

Broad Fork

How would you describe your soil? For my garden I like to use cobbly sandy loam and I also use not prime farmland. Two phrases you wouldn’t ever associate with a productive vegetable patch. I found those two bits of information from the USDA Soil Survey. If you can tough through their not so user friendly application, you might find some amusing data as troubling as mine. Some of the problems I have observed in my garden include:

  • Lots of tree roots from numerous nearby pine trees.
  • Lots of large cobble-stone sized rocks
  • Tight airless soil 6-10 inches below the surface

bfkFor these three reasons I decided my garden needed a deep till. On average, agricultural topsoil is only about 6 inches deep; that’s about as deep as you can work the soil with normal garden tools and rototillers. Tillers have the extra downside of creating a hard compacted soil zone called hard pan. This is a major problem on farms using tractors and has done much to contribute to the reduced plant health and subsequent decline in nutrition. What I would like to see in my space is a solid 20 inches of top soil, the kind you can push your arm up to its elbow in. That might sound like a lot, but its still a far cry from the 240 inches (20 feet) found by early American pioneers in some parts of the country.

One of the tools I’ve been wanting to use to help solve this problem is the Broadfork. I had an opportunity to visit a friends urban garden where he had two different forks for me to try. The one I chose comes from Meadow Creature, and it’s a real monster with four 16″ inch steel claws and a heavy all steel construction.

The broadfork allows you to deeply till and aerate your soil by hand without excessive mixing and bringing up of the subsoil. It looks like a large double handled pictchfork, but it’s a whole lot heavier and the tines are very long and sturdy. The tines can vary in length from about 12 to 16 inches long, some are for lighter soils and others for very tough soils. The tool can cut a good sized swath about two foot wide. Using it is pretty simple, step on the crossbar and use your body weight to bury it as deep as you can get it, then pull backwards while the teeth  rip upwards.

broadforkMy broadfork posing with some of the buried treasure it found.

And what a workout! Every spring I seem to do some major work in the garden and it sure makes me wonder if it just might be a little too big. I’ve been working every weekend for a month to get all the beds prepared in time for planting and I am just about done now. My process is to first broadfork the whole bed lengthwise, add my soil amendments and then broadfork it a second time crosswise. That first tilling is tough, my soil wants to resist the intrusion and I locate a lot of rocks and roots. The second till is much easier, but I still seem to harvest a second crop of cobblestones.

Be aware that the fork I chose to use was designed for working in difficult soils. Once the soil has improved in both depth and tilth, and a lot less cobble stones, I will switch to a much lighter and easier to use fork with five or six tines. In excellent soil these tools are fast and nearly effortless to use.

~Sean

Early Potatoes

Last weekend I planted my early potatoes, far ahead of the main potato planting schedule. If all goes well we should be roasting fresh new baby potatoes by June, four to six weeks before the main season starts. If you want to try your hand at growing early potatoes, this is my method.

I grow about eight varieties of potatoes every year, but only one for early potatoes, Yukon Gold. Normally I wouldn’t have picked such a commonly available strain, but for our purposes we need one that’s vigorous and matures quickly, something Yukon’s work very well for. I’ve also found this varieties yellow flesh to be richer in flavor, as a matter of fact, every variety with yellow flesh is richer in flavor. Since discovering that I’ve dropped all those boring and tasteless white fleshed types from the growing schedule. The flesh color comes from several health giving phytonutrients and is documented well in Jo Robinson’s book Eating on the Wild Side. White fleshed potatoes are very low in these extra nutrients, even if the skin is dark and vibrant.

chitpotatoesThe time for planting early potatoes is about four weeks before you would otherwise plant your main harvest potatoes. The first step is to pre-sprout, or chit them. I pulled my seed potatoes out of storage three or four weeks ago and carefully arranged them into an empty seed flat so that the root side of the potato was generally downwards. The root side can be identified by locating the scar where it was attached to the mother plant the previous year. I then placed the tray in a warmer room exposed to indirect light. After a few weeks you should see small buds forming as you can see in this picture.

You can’t drop your potatoes in the cold damp soil of early spring to decay, the soil must be warmed first. A week ago I moved one of my cheap portable low tunnels over the planting bed, and was simultaneously blessed with a weeks worth of sunshine. By potato planting time, the soil temperature had risen to 55 degrees, while the outside soil was still slinking at a cool 40.

For seed bed preparation, most of the work was done the previous fall where I had carefully deep-tilled and re-mineralized the soil. My beds are about four foot wide and this year I will be fitting in two ten foot rows spaced about 18 inches apart. With a narrow shovel I quickly dug two parallel trenches down the bed, about eight inches deep. I then sprinkled in a few handfuls of Gypsum into each trench to provide some extra Calcium.

To prepare the seed potatoes, carefully cut the larger ones into golf ball sized pieces, making sure to get at least a few good sprouts, or eyes, on each piece. Your typical potato planting recommendations encourage you to coat each piece in a sulfur based anti-fungal powder/chemical to kill pathogenic fungus. For naturally disease resistant and nutrient dense potatoes that’s an absolutely terrible idea. Of course I did the exact opposite and coated my seed pieces with a beneficial fungus instead.

lowtunnelPlace each potato seed about a foot apart into the trenches, making sure the eyes are facing upwards. Then partially fill in the trench with about four inches of earth. Lastly, I added a couple handfuls of high quality worm castings, kelp meal and about two lbs of rock dust per trench and watered it all in well.

Now the potatoes just need some time, and a little climate control by covering their bed with the low tunnel again. Our baby potatoes now have everything needed to encourage maximum biological activity and nutrient availability for a healthy start.

~Sean

UPDATE: read about the results here on Early Potatoes II

Measuring Success – Brix

If you read my last post reviewing the butternut squash competition that illustrated the correlation between brix and nutrient density, you may have wondered where my initial assumption had come from, the grades given by each squash’s refractometer value:

6 - Poor
8 - Average
12 - Good
14 - Excellent

These values didn’t come from me, but rather a lifetime of agricultural research by Dr. Carey Reams. What’s interesting for us though, is what these grades actually mean:

  • Poor – zero to terrible flavor, rots very quickly, very bad nourishment
  • Average – bland to somewhat flavorful, lasts longer in storage but still not very nourishing
  • Good – great flavor, stores a long time without decay and good nutrition
  • Excellent – legendary flavor, dries out long before rotting, superior health through food is now possible

We have already shown how nutrient density relates to brix, but also flavor and storage too? Indeed it does, but I will save those explanations for a later post when we discuss monitoring plant health and the role that insects and disease organisms play. Our goal here is to give you a new tool, the ability to relate your own brix readings to a meaningful measurement of quality.

Following this are the charts that you will need. It was the genius of Dr. Carey Reams that deserves full credit for compiling the original data and then freely giving it away in the early 1970’s. Since then, there have been several updates and additions made by the observations of other agricultural researches. What I’ve done here is created a greater composite chart of all of them together, choosing the highest values available.

The charts use the PAGE method: Poor-Average-Good-Excellent. There is an additional column in there called “Resistant”, I will explain that later, feel free to ignore it for now.

brixchart

In the process of writing this I discovered that I had used Dr. Reams’s original values for my article on the Squash Contest and not the values I have listed here. That was an over-site on my part. So instead of the 6-8-12-14 values I should have used 6-10-14-16. If you go back to that article and look again, you will see that no one had submitted the best possible class of fruits to the contest.

~Sean

Brix & Nutrient Density

Is anyone still wondering if any two vegetables are created equalIn 2013 International Ag Labs conducted a competition to see who could grow the best Butternut Squash, and the data is openly available. For each fruit that was submitted we can see a nutrient analysis and a Brix reading. I was able to copy the data into a spreadsheet and pulled out some interesting information.

First, lets look at the Brix readings. Let us assume that a low Brix value is bad, and a high Brix value is good in this way:

6 - Poor
8 - Average
12 - Good
14 - Excellent

If we then sort the available data by Brix, lowest to highest, we have a graph that looks like this:

brix

If we can now apply the same scale as established above but instead graph out the various mineral nutrients from the data, we find that:

CaMgas Brix increases, so does the Calcium and Magnesium,

Kand Phosphorous,

Pand Potassium,

ZnMnand Zinc and Manganese too,

FeCuand lastly the Iron and Copper content as well.

There does seem to be a correlation between Brix and mineral nutrients.

In the 1953 Yearbook of Agriculture (USDA), it is proclaimed that the “Lack of fertilizer may reduce the yield of a crop, but not the amount of nutrients in the food produced.” In essence, they’re saying that a Squash is a Squash is a Squash.

For the testing of these squash, 100 gram samples of each fruit are taken and scientifically dried. Once all the water has been removed, the leftover material is carefully weighed and we have what’s called the Dry Matter, the sum of all the material of the plant: minerals, proteins, lipids, etc. More dry matter means more nutrients. If it is as the USDA say’s it is, and a Squash is a Squash is a Squash, then all samples should be equal. Lets see what the graph says.

DryMatter

As Brix increase there is a doubling of the Dry Matter!

If you have been looking carefully at the charts, you will see some variations in the data. The sample to the very right serves as a good example of this. In a detailed explanation of the results, Jon Frank of IAL says that particular variety was called Honeynut and “it was genetically patterned to make more sugars but it didn’t back it up with more minerals.” This exposes itself to us with its high Brix value but a lesser Nutrient profile. A lot of factors come into play to produce a nutrient dense product, and in this particular case it appears that the selected variety is genetically predisposed to be higher in sugars, thus giving a strong Brix reading. This means that relying solely upon Brix by itself is not a sure fire way to identify a top of class product, although it is a very strong indicator.

There are two more bits of information in our data we haven’t looked at yet and that’s the Protein content and the Free Nitrates. Here they are:

ProteinProtein content doubles as the Brix increases,

Nitratesbut the Nitrates decrease!

What is the significance of this? Reviewing the Nitrates chart, notice that the first half of the graph the free Nitrates (Nitrogen) are very high and erratic, but then stabilize in the middle. Now look at the peaks and valley’s in both charts, there is a matching pattern in there, again more so on the first half of the graph while the Brix is still low. Nitrogen and Protein relate, and this takes us to our first small lesson on plant physiology.

Nitrogen is a required element for protein construction. A sick plant however doesn’t do a good job of this, and the protein synthesis can fail at any point. This can give you a large number of partially completed proteins, the degenerative kind that are unstable and decay rapidly, leaving a lot of extra Nitrogen floating around inside the plant. At the same time, all farmers and gardeners know that in order to get lots of green leafy growth you should add lots of Nitrogen, making an already bad situation worse. Further, in the laboratory setting when the Protein content is analyzed, it’s only tested for crude protein, and that’s only done by adding up all the Nitrogen found. What it does not tell us is how much functional protein is actually in the plant. Look at that last chart again, and drop the protein content even further downwards on the left side, because the free nitrogen is excessive and the proteins are not any good.

For gardeners, there’s no need to send a plant sample to the laboratory for an expensive count of the Protein and Nitrogen, just test your Brix and look for Aphids instead. These little bugs, and other sap-sucking insects, have a digestive system specially designed for processing low sugar sap and incomplete proteins. The excessive Nitrogen then becomes a signal to the insect, one that can be detected at a distance, and says “I am a plant in poor health, come eat me.” If however the Aphid inadvertently feeds upon the sap of a healthy plant, the high sugar and complete proteins can actually kill the poor little bug. Thus not only is a healthy plant more difficult for Aphids to identify, but the plant can effectively protect itself from attack. The digestive system of insects does not work the same as they do in animals, who obtain health from consuming healthy plants and illness consuming sick one.

One more small tidbit about identifying nutrient dense food. Some people can get a digestive upset consuming salad lettuce, my wife being one of them. This can be due to the presence of excessive free nitrates in the lettuce leaf. The farmer, organic or not, is spreading the nitrogen thick on these crops to get good leaf growth as rapidly as possible to take to market. Your lettuce should never give you a stomach ache, it should always be very crisp and free of decay, and should last for many months in the refrigerator.

Brix testing is one of the most powerful tools you can use to measure both the health of your plants, and the quality of your food. As you saw here, there are some pitfalls to be aware of, but that’s for another day. For now, get a refractometer.

~Sean