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

Assessing Quality – Refractometer

In the early 1800’s, European vintners were seeking a reliable way to determine the perfect time to harvest wine grapes, an important objective when a high quality bottle sold for hundreds more. Several methods were pioneered, but the one that most interests us most is the measure of total dissolved solids: the amount of stuff in the grape juice. With this understanding European vintners were better able to manage plant health and produce consistently higher quality grapes. This technique can easily be applied at home with a nifty little gadget called a refractometer.

The refractometer measures in degrees Brix (°Bx). The scale is based upon the quantity of dissolved cane sugar in water and equates to percentage. Thus a reading of 1° Brix is 1% dissolved sugar and 99% water, and 25° Brix is 25% dissolved sugar and 75% water. The tool is calibrated to 0° using distilled water.

The refractometer works like a prism. When light is passed through different substances it bends and reacts slightly differently from one another. To take a measurement, a small drop of liquid is placed on the refractometer window and pointed at the light. The degree of light bend is then displayed on a scale you can read through the eyepiece.

zerobrixThis is what a drop of water and 0° Brix looks like through my camera phone.

Since a large part of plant juices are made up of sugars and water, this is an excellent way for us to obtain a usable and very accurate reading. For example, grape must is mostly glucose, not sucrose, but the Brix is still within 0.1 degrees, a level of accuracy more than sufficient for our use. Like grape must, all plant juices contain a whole lot more than simple sugar (minerals, proteins, fats, vitamins, amino acids, etc), so when the tool is used  in this way it is referred to as “total dissolved solids” or “total soluable solids”.

In addition to 200 years of use among grape growers, the refractometer is well known within the food industry for things like fruit juice, jams and jellies, soft drinks, beer and numerous scientific and industrial applications.

There are numerous types of refractometers on the market, but we just need one: a hand held refractometer with a scale from 0-32 degrees. The only garden vegetable you will encounter that exceeds 32° are garlic cloves. The brix reading is also somewhat temperature sensitive, so getting a device with ATR (Automatic Temperature Regulator) will save you from doing some extra math.

This is what I recommend:

  • Refractometer, 0-32 degrees, with ATR
  • small pocket notebook and pencil
  • garlic press

Brix testing is one of the easiest and most informative tools available for gardening. You can use it to monitor your plant health, including the health of your weeds, and it allows you to grade the quality of fruits and vegetables at harvest.

I record all my readings into a notebook sorted by plant type: apples, oranges, carrots, broccoli, etc. To take a measurement carefully squeeze a drop or two of liquid from your plant leaf, fruit or vegetable. If the plant part is refusing to give you a good drop, use the garlic press. Place the drops onto the prism and look through the eyepiece and record the reading. You now have a point of reference you can use to measure your success with.refractometer

You can actually use your refractometer to measure any liquid, and I’ve had a lot of fun with mine. I test milk, tap water, bottled water, coffee, tea and all the soda’s at work. I also test every fruit and vegetable I can get my hands on: the store, the farmers market, backyards; and I always record whether it was organic or not.

The refractometer has proved itself in giving results in the field for 200 years of viticulture, and is an accepted tool in biological agriculture. It’s a great tool, but it’s not the only tool, and it does take some knowledge to use effectively, but more detail on that later. You can get a refractometer quite inexpensively, I bought mine (Vee Gee BTX-1) off of Amazon.

Happy Brix’ing,

~Sean

50 Years of Lost Nutrition

I keep talking about food quality but haven’t yet mentioned what that might actually mean, let’s start that discussion now. There are a number of qualitative factors that can be applied to food, but one that’s familiar to most people is the nutritional value. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of many important vitamins and minerals, aren’t they?

min-vitIn a 2004 study (1) of common garden vegetables there was found to be a significantly reliable decline from 1950 to 1999 according to USDA data. It’s actually quite easy to look up the information yourself, and I did just that for three vegetables: broccoli, carrots and corn. The chart to the right shows the numbers from 1950 (2) and the latest information from 2001 and 2008 (3). I added an extra column showing the percent difference.

Broccoli is frequently touted as a high calcium food but as you can see here it contains 2/3 less calcium than it did only 50 years earlier. To get the same nutrition as your grandparents you would need to consume up to three times more! Nearly all of the vitamins and minerals for these foods has declined, and there’s nothing unusual about these three either, as the data shows similar declines for every vegetable, fruit and grain.

USDA data only goes to 1950, but the British have information that goes back to 1936, and a similar 50 year study from the United Kingdom (4) demonstrated the exact same thing, consistent dilution of nutritive value of all foods.

There were significant reductions in the levels of Ca, Mg, Cu and Na, in vegetables and Mg, Fe, Cu and K in fruits. The greatest change was the reduction of copper levels in vegetables to less than one-fifth of the old level.

ukcarrotsIf any cause for this decline is ever given, I believe it to be poorly conceived. In the Davis study the author boldly says “any real declines are generally most easily explained by changes in cultivated varieties.” I am not questioning that plant genetics can make an impact, but that soil quality makes a far greater one. This fact is occasionally mentioned but never discussed in detail.

There are also a number of documents showing how differing soil across the US can significantly change food nutrition. The study Variation in Mineral Composition of Vegetables (5) illustrates this quite clearly. Tomatoes grown in Indiana contained 250% more calcium (15 mg) than those grown in Georgia ( 6 mg). Today the USDA says tomatoes contain 10 mg of calcium.

A huge variation also exists between two otherwise identically looking products. In the same study the best tomato had 23 mg of calcium, while the worst had only 4.5. Spinach is even more amusing as it’s known for being high in iron. I found this website that ranked spinach at #8 in the top 10 sources for iron, and the number given isn’t even accurate, it’s 1/3 higher than the USDA says it is. In the study the best spinach contained 1,584 ppm of iron, while the worst had but 1.

cationsexchangeableinsoilPlease don’t think that I’m saying 50 years ago food quality was high, it was better for sure, but was it great? Unfortunately, it was already well known long before 1950 that the nutritional value of our food had been in decline, already beyond the point of giving good human and animal health. The most glaring example comes from the 1936 US Senate Document 264, an article written about the problem:

The alarming fact is that foods —  fruits and vegetables and grains — now being raised on million acres of land that no longer contains enough of certain needed minerals, are starving us, no matter how much of them we eat.

And what about your own garden? I was shocked when I realized just how poor much of my garden produce was, but I also had a few successes and that encouraged me. As a gardener you are in the best possible position, for you have an opportunity to take charge of your food, your environment and your health by growing exceptionally nutritious food.

~Sean

1 Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops 1950 to 1999. Journal of the american College of Nutrition, Vol. 23, No. 6, 669-683 (2004)
2.Composition of foods: raw, processed, prepared USDA Agriculture handbooks, 1950, http://naldc.nal.usda.gov/naldcPUB/search.xhtml
3. USDA National Nutrient Database, USDA National Agricultural Library search engine, http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list
4. Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables, Anne-Marie Mayer, British Food Journal 99/6, 1997, 207-211.
5. Variation in Mineral Composition of Vegetables Firmane E. Bear, Stephen J Toth, and Arthur L Pice, Soil Science Society of America Proceedings 1948, Volume 13. pp. 380-4, The Soil Science Society of America, Madison, Wisconsin, 1949

Go get your soil tested

It’s almost spring and now is a good time to get your soil tested if you didn’t do it last fall. This gives you just enough time to interpret the results and make some changes before you fill your beds with plants. Otherwise you will have to wait for late summer or fall.

I bet you didn’t know that soil science is also a study in philosophy and culture. Different groups have conflicting viewpoints of how soils work like the organic community, biodynamic farming and even hired professional farm consultants. The most influential group is the agricultural colleges and land grant universities.

soiltestUniversity teaching is geared towards chemical agriculture and their experts do not necessarily subscribe to some of the competing ideas from the other groups. Unfortunately the typical University material downplays the differences in food quality despite abundant evidence to the contrary. The belief that an apple is an apple is an apple works well for industry, but not for the consumer. I’ve found the most useful information actually comes from a handful of agricultural consultants and black sheep professors. The ag-consultants jobs are dependent upon results, and not upon published papers, and results are what we care most about. My article on pH was a small example of this conflict in ideas.

Because of this, not all soil testing labs are equal. Understandably, most labs are oriented towards chemical agriculture and work well for that particular use. I hold the belief that our results can far exceed that and picking the right soil test is part of the puzzle. I’m over simplifying here but there are basically two groups of soil test labs out there. The first are those that attempt to identify total nutrients using strong acids to extract the minerals from the sample, this is the type normally used by universities and chemical-ag. The second group are those that try to identify what they call available nutrients by using weak acids, under the belief that this more closely represents what plant roots have access to. Both types have value for different reasons, but I put a lot more emphasis behind available nutrients.

The other thing to consider is what nutrients are tested for, and not just how they are tested. My local soil test lab only covers various forms of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. These are the big three nutrients from chemical-ag philosopy, also knows as NPK. Unfortunately you can not get a best of class product using the NPK method. Great produce is only possible in well balanced soil, which means testing for a whole lot more. At a minimum the test should cover at least 10 nutrients if not 20 or more, 3 is just grossly insufficient.

Soil balancing is a very big topic, but I don’t want you to wait for me to write 20 more articles when you can make the necessary improvements to your own gardens now. Go get a soil test and pay the extra cost for the recommendations. Please remember that soil testing is just one of many tools we will be using. It is not the final and only thing you can do to improve your food quality.

Soil Test Labs  I recommend:

  1. Logan Labs – this is the lab that I use
  2. International Ag Labs
  3. Midwest Laboratories
  4. Kinsey Ag

For more information in book form on the topic that are well suited for gardeners:

  • The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon
  • The Art of Balancing Soil Nutrients by William McKibben
  • The Ideal Soil by Michael Astera

~Sean

Strawberry Popcorn

A few years back on a whim I decided to grow popcorn. Certainly I wasn’t going to switch out the summer mainstay of delicious sweet corn any time soon, but I had room that year for a small block of starchy kernels carefully planted some distance away to avoid cross pollinating and dulling down the flavor of my favorite super-sweet. Summer passed all too fast which brought me to a cold winters evening remembering the dried corn tucked away in the cellar. I’ve not grown sweet corn since.

strawberrypopcornNot that I don’t like sweet corn, it’s just that the season for that particular snack is far too short, space too tight, and I’m a lazy gardener and avoid all efforts at special preservation techniques. No canning, no freezing, no processing, we prefer things fresh. Instead, after harvesting all the popcorn in September I just toss it into a box and forget about it until January when the flurry of holiday and family activities has calmed. There are few things on this earth as comforting on a cold winters evening as a warm bowl of the purest popcorn.

Last year I grew an attractive heirloom variety called Strawberry Popcorn. The 5′ tall plant produces several small ears of beautiful dark red jewels of whats called “rice” popcorn, as the ends of each kernel are pointed instead of round. My wife uses them throughout the house as an attractive fall decoration along with several French winter squashes.

Once popped, the little kernels are a delight in texture and taste, and in stark contrast to the large fluffy kernels of commercial corn that are mostly air. A half bowl of these little kernels are more than satisfying and without any of those hard hulls that get stuck in your teeth.

Growing Plan

Nothing too unusual about my growing plan this year, except that it’s not Strawberry Popcorn. Instead I elected to grow another heirloom variety called Dakota Black, but I can write about that next winter.

I sow three or four seeds per foot directly outdoors, three rows per bed, one or two weeks before last frost and watch the chickens and squirrels carefully so they don’t dig them up. After the plants are about 6″ tall thin them to 12″ apart and maybe transplant a few to fill in any gaps. Expected harvest is about mid September allowing them to dry as much as possible on the stalk. I husk the corn and then place them in a well ventilated area for a few more months to dry. You know it’s ready to eat when the corn pops readily.

dblackFor rich nutrient dense corn, there are few plants written about as extensively as corn. This is because corn is a major commodity and many biological farmers rely upon it to pay the bills. We will explore this in greater detail over the summer as we use my small patch as an experiment.

History

The history behind Strawberry Popcorn is a mystery to me, I was able to find only a few vague references to it being an Indian corn. I even had a short exchange with Jack, the worlds only commercial grower of Strawberry Popcorn. This was Jack’s last growing season, retiring from an astounding 30 year Strawberry Popcorn growing career and producing 5000 lbs of delicious little red kernels every season. Jack admitted that he had only seen what looked like this variety’s ancestor in a museum somewhere once. Whatever its true origin and the fate of its breeder I can’t yet say.

MaizeAs for the masters of vegetable gardening, the 19th century Parisian Market Gardeners, there is hardly a peep about corn and none about popcorn. One small page in the 1885 Vilmorin says “it is almost exclusively in the United States of America that the Maize is regarded as a regular table vegetable.” This lack of interest was hardly new at the time for we find another and earlier reference in the now amusing 16th century English tome of plant lore, The Herball of Generall Historie of Plantes, that “the barbarous Indians which know no better, are constrained to make a virtue of necessities, and think it a good food.” I am told that it’s still rarely eaten in Europe.

Popping

Certainly I’ve popped my fair share of popcorn in an air popper, and you may too if Styrofoam is your favorite flavor of corn. I have since learned however that the best way to pop corn is on the stove top with a pot, a lid and some olive oil.

popcornI set a burner to high, and drizzle in a table spoon or two of olive oil. Drop in a few kernels and wait until they’re sizzling before adding a few handfuls of my favorite popcorn. For large popping corn use a little less to avoid over flowing the pot, but for the pint sized kernels of strawberry popcorn more is the rule. Gently agitate the pot to keep the kernels from burning until you see one or two of the kernels pop. Then quickly place the lid on to prevent hot oil and your corn escaping its confinement. Keep agitating the pot and listen to the exciting roar of the popping. As soon as it starts to slow turn off the heat and a few moments later the popping will have almost stopped. Pull from the heat and immediately pour into a bowl while the last few kernels explode. Timing is criticle, if your a little early you will have more unpopped kernels, and if yoru a little too late it may start to burn. Watch out too, that pot will be extremely hot, so place it carefully away and out of reach. Add a few pinches of real sea salt, the gray or pink kind, and enjoy.

Store Popcorn

Popcorn is one of those rare high quality products actually available in stores. Popcorn will only pop if the kernel is dense and fully filled out. Corn with dents and pits are nutritionally inferior and will not pop. Purchase only organic and heirloom varieties and avoid the abomination that GMO corn has become. And microwave popcorn is a terrible idea. Not only does does the product contain toxins but microwaves themselves may denature the food.

Corn meal is typically made from average low quality flint or dent corn usually fed only to those poor sick animals in intensive feeding operations. Avoid that stuff as it doesn’t make the animals healthy and it won’t you either, instead grind your own. You can create a rich and flavorful corn flower from organic popcorn in a grain mill. Be sure your mill is rated to grind popcorn as the extra dense kernels can damage it.

~Sean