Our Experience Growing and Storing Our Own Food- Part 2, by Tennessean

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Seed (continued)

Winter Squash

One needs to give these cultivars a LOT of room, planting on a grid 8’ by 8’ is about right. This year we are growing two winter squash cultivars that keep a long time in a root cellar. Anna Swartz is a C. maxima and Waltham Butternut is a C. moschata and will not cross pollinate (this is why you must have Suzanne Ashworth’s book!), so we will be saving the seed from these. Insects pollinate the cucumber family, and we’ve oodles of all sorts of pollinator insects in East Tennessee, and they fly for many thousands of feet looking for blossoms. On each “hill”, dig an 18” wide, 12” deep hole, and mix two gallons of composted manure, ¼ cup lime, and ¼ cup enhanced triple 15. Plant four seeds at the corners of the “hill.” Water with a drip irrigation system.

Potatoes

We’ve settled on Yukon Gold potatoes. 95% of our seed potatoes that are saved in mesh bags on hooks in our root cellar survived over the fall and winter months. You really, really need a root cellar. Buy the recommended book and get to work. Grow potatoes on a plot where you have grown legumes the year before and you will probably get a decent crop without any added fertilizer.

Tomatoes

Prepare the hole for the tomato seeding about like that recommended for the winter squash. It is best to have a single row of tomato plants spaced about 2’ apart in an area that gets good air circulation to reduce transfer of the early blight fungus from plant to plant. You may need to fence in the tomatoes with 2’ chicken wire to keep Bugs Bunny out and hang old CD’s around the tomatoes. The bright reflection scares most birds away and vastly reduces losses due to bird pecks.

Tomatoes are either determinant or indeterminate. The latter keep growing vines until disease or drought kills the vines. The former are mostly hybrids; the latter are mostly heirlooms. We’ve tried a great many cultivars. In our area early blight (a fungus disease) is our major issue. Clemson University research showed that planting tropical nightshade family plants (e.g., tomatoes, eggplant, peppers) in the center of 5’ wide red plastic mulch speeds time to harvest. Since the fungal spores that infect the tomato leaves come from the soil, the red mulch and 3’ wide weed cloth on both sides of a tomato row reduce infection. Removing the lower leaves that seem damaged by the fungi also helps. We recommend burning all tomato vines at the end of the season. One heirloom cultivar that is somewhat resistant to the fungi is the Black Plum (from the Crimean region and indeterminate) that produces the most excellent pasta sauce you will ever eat. Our Black Plum vines in mid July are 7‘ long and have to be corralled with T posts tied to tomato cages. Researchers are working very hard to develop tomato cultivars resistant to early blight. We are trying one of these– Mountain Magic– this year.

The conical tomato cages sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and most gardening stores are as useless as a screen door in a submarine. Why? The conical shape virtually guarantees that if your tomato plant reaches a decent size, the cage will fall over. It is the idiotic geometry that is the problem. Sure, they will nest nicely. So what?

What is there to do? Go this winter to Home Depot or Lowe’s or wherever and get thyself a roll of reinforcement wire used for concrete work. This comes in tall rolls and is rusty. Forget about and ignore the rust. Get a pair of wire nippers (electrical tools to cut rather heavy gauge wire) and also a pair of smallish Vise Grip pliers. On sunny days this winter cut the roll of wire into sections about four to six feet wide. This will yield a cylindrical cage of about the right diameter.

Using the vise grip, grab the horizontal sections of wire at what will become the bottom, and cut these out. Cut out enough rows so that you will have only vertical wires at the bottom at least 12 inches and preferably 15 inches long, if your soil will permit. These are stuck into the soil with the tomato plant in the center.

My neighbor does this. I’ve yet to see a single cage fall over, and I’ve been watching over the last four years. He stores these off season on a tarp, covered by another tarp, secured against the wind.

Onions

The seed only lasts a year or so. It’s very hard to keep them all winter, though we try. We suggest Egyptian Walking onions. Read about these on Wikipedia. Thomas Jefferson grew these in his Monticello garden. Around here they are called “winter onions” because people leave them in the ground all winter and dig them up as needed. In colder climates, bales of straw on top of the raised bed will keep them happy. IF one has sufficient rain in April to June then in July the flower stalk does not make flowers but oodles of bulblets, which are planted (only halfway) in the soil and kept watered until the fall rains. Over the winter the in-ground bulbs will divide. In midsummer, as they go dormant, I divide up the bulbs and replant. I strongly suggest growing these on a 3” by 3” grid in an easily weeded raised bed. One may also (as I am about to do) put the bulblets in small pots in starting mix and keep watered. I note in passing that we have found that bok choi interplanted with these onions is pretty much ignored by leaf beetles. We wish to test this with other members of the cabbage family.

Peanuts

If your soil and climate allow for peanut cultivation, consider peanuts for their quite high fat (and caloric) content as opposed to other legumes, like field peas. A caution about peanuts: very quickly dry the peanuts as they are still attached to the plant. A fungus that produces a toxic carcinogen (aflatoxin) very readily grows on damp peanuts. After the peanuts are mostly dry, detach them from the plant and dry until they’re a constant weight. A homemade bulk dryer as described below will be invaluable. Weigh four cups of peanuts in the shell before drying the peanuts in the shell and at intervals during the drying process. When the weight approaches a constant value, your peanuts will be as dry as you can get them. I suggest immediately shelling the peanuts and roasting them. Then put them in glass canning jars, with a band and lid, and pump out most of the air with a Pump ‘N Seal. Hold back enough shelled peanuts from roasting for next year’s seed. Beware: rabbits love peanut leaves, and mice will travel from adjacent counties to eat your peanuts while they are drying. Squirrels have been known to dig peanuts right out of the ground and eat them.

Garlic:

In October, separate out individual cloves of garlic and plant them a couple of inches below the surface. Remove the flower heads in May to direct all the food storage to the bulbs. In mid summer, after the garlic tops die down, carefully remove from the dirt and braid the garlic into braids and hang in a cool, dark, moderate humidity space. Territorial Seeds has an astounding number of different garlic varieties. The main difference is the “soft neck” versus the “hard neck” distinction.

Oregano

In our area, this is a perennial. Now I strongly suggest that you grow oregano in a raised bed far, far, away from any other veggie plots, as the small seeds will wind blow and next spring you will have ‘volunteer” oregano growing in any nearby veggie bed. You’ll likely have lots of it.

Perennial Leeks

We are propagating perennial leeks, both by seed and by division of the cloves as they begin to sprout come fall. We do this in raised beds.

Rotation

It is important for several plant families not to plant veggies from the same family in the same plot until three years have passed. This is especially true for the nightshade, cabbage, and cucurbit families. Keep a detailed record of what veggies were grown in what plot each year for rotation planning. Corn and legumes do not seem to need as much rotation as other families. Yes, we’ve grown all these veggies, as well as peppers, sweet potatoes, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, cucumbers, eggplant, and others.

Cover Crops

Unless you are very fortunate, your soil will not have nearly enough organic matter (aka humus) in it. There are beneficial fungi that form (sometimes critical as in the lady slipper orchids) symbiotic relationships with plant roots. These need a soil with substantial organic matter to prosper. Humus, with its negative charges, also acts as a cation exchanger to hold on to the important cations (more below). Sowing a crop of annual winter rye in the fall will:

  1. Add humus to the soil,
  2. Come spring, will inhibit the germination of many weeds, and
  3. Will sequester nitrogen thru the winter.

Every chemist knows that all nitrate and ammonium salts are soluble. One may mix rye with hairy vetch to add nitrogen. For a summer cover crop, try a hybrid that comes from sudan grass and sorghum. It is best to bush hog the crop at the flowering stage, as it will become “weedy” if the seeds are allowed to mature. Another great summer cover crop (if your climate permits it) is Iron and Clay field peas. Thomas Jefferson grew these, they take a long time to make flowers and make very long vines. Diakon radish (aka Tillage Radish) is an interesting cover crop, because the roots go deep and it winter kills for ease of spring planting. A very useful cover crop is Austrian Winter Peas sown in the fall. In our area they survive the winter and fix some 160 pounds of nitrogen per acre. If one allows them to mature, the green peas in their pods taste (at least to me) exactly like English peas. Of course, all non-food vegetable matter is returned to the soil via a compost pile, except of course the pieces the chickens like to eat. You do plan to have chickens, right?

For all cover crops, bush hog these before roto-tilling them into the soil; otherwise, you will waste time and energy unwinding vines and stems from your rototiller. Yes, we have tried all these cover crops.

Fertilizer

We augment commercial 15-15-15 with a micronutrient mix and magnesium sulfate (aka Epson Salts) from your drugstore to add to the commercial NPK fertilizer. See www.foodforall.com for this micronutrient mix. For legumes, we mix ½ 15-15-15 with ½ 0-20-20 and for corn we mix ½ 15-15-15 and ½ 46-0-0 (urea). We stockpile LOTS of triple 15, 46-0-0, Epsom salts, and bags of micronutrient mix. Since some of our soil has a lot of clay we add gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the soil to loosen the clay. William McKibben’s book is a must read on balancing soil nutrients. His book is based on the massive research done by Dr. William A. Albrecht at the University of Missouri on balancing the cations in the soil (e.g., Ca, Mg, K, and the micronutrients). I’m now reading the second of his books with his collected papers. Albrecht showed that having the correct mix of major and micro nutrients was critical to growing food that led to healthy animals. Cows and pigs could tell the difference between food grown with the correct mix of macro and micro nutrients and food grown on plain soil! Albrecht showed over and over again that the main benefit of adding lime (calcium carbonate) to the soil was the addition of enough calcium for great plant growth, not raising the pH per se. Dr. Albrecht suggests that exchangeable cations in the soil should be about 70% calcium, 20% magnesium, with 5-10% potassium. The remainder is mostly bound hydrogen ions.

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