We harvested tomatoes well into November this year. This late of a tomato harvest is simply unheard of in recent memory. While the weather has given us more time to get the sweet potatoes dug and cured, the typical fall crops are not overly happy with the extreme hot and dry pattern we are in. At the same time, we are employing our fall-into-winter growing systems for when Mother Nature lowers the boom to average things out.
We have described in these blog entries how the cooler/shorter days of fall slow the growth rate of greens, with a causative effect of intensifying the flavors within. Basically, the leaves convert solar energy into complex carbohydrates, but the cells do not multiply, therefore the leaves do not elongate as rapidly with the shorter daylight of fall, so all that goodness stays in a smaller package. Even though it has been warmer this fall, plant growth is primarily dictated by day length, so you will taste this phenomenon with every bite. Some of the direct-seeded crops, like spinach and lettuces, are behind schedule since the hot, dry weather has impeded their germination and initial growth, compared to “normal” growing conditions.
It seems there is no such thing as normal weather patterns any more. Used to, we figured on last frost about Derby Day and first frost in early October. Used to, we could count on garden-variety thunderstorms to roll though every so often in the summer, with time to tend the fields and crops in between. Lately, it seems like long durations of wet or dry spells set in and hang around for extended periods of time. This fall, we had the sixth wettest August followed by the sixth driest September, with even less rain and record-high temps in October with November following suit. All of our planting decisions are based on our collective memory and experience on when is the best time to plant for the fall, but now, we must also plan on moisture and temperature extremes that no one can predict.
The light frosts we have seen this past week have been spotty, with a pattern that has affected harvest in some fields but not others. Not only can overcast skies block the nighttime radiational cooling that causes frost to form, but the morning fog protects the plants in the lower part of the field, which is where frost normally happens first. One evening, the wind persisted all night—particularly important just before daylight—which minimized frost formation. With all of these conditions combined, you can still purchase summertime flavor at the farmers markets this weekend in the form of cherry tomatoes, beautiful, red bell peppers and numerous other tasty treats.
For the Animals
The shorter, cooler days of fall improve the quality of the pasture plants, similar to the effect on produce plants. The sugar content—or nutrient density of the leaves—increases as described above, meaning the livestock consume less to meet their nutritional requirements for growth, so the standing forage lasts longer into the winter. We can actually let fields go ungrazed during September and October, called stockpiling, because the leaf material improves in quality, whereas in the summer, older leaves have reduced palatability and nutrient yield. Stockpiling allows us to graze our stock well into winter, as they prefer to graze over eating hay.
Another interesting biological phenomena we witnessed for the first time ever this year involves our nemesis, Johnsongrass. This insidious invasive species spreads by seeds and underground stems, called rhizomes. It is spreading across the commonwealth at an alarming rate. It is overtaking the rights-of-way of highways and fields left unattended. Old timers say it came in from western hay, shipped in for cattle feed after droughty weather reduced the hay crop several decades ago. It takes a stringent herbicide regimen that we will not follow as an organic farm, so constant mowing or consistent cultivation are our choices to minimize its growth. Part of our Johnsongrass-control strategy is to mimic mowing by repeatedly grazing it through the summer, which has the effect of depleting the root reserves that it needs to initiate new growth.
Not only is Johnsongrass invasive in nature, but cattle and sheep can die if they eat freshly frosted, damaged leaf tissue. As the ice forms in the leaves, rupturing the green cell walls, toxic prussic acid forms and is concentrated in this limp, dark tissue. Normally we have to keep cattle away from patches of Johnsongrass when a killing frost hits, but this year, the plants already dried down, and there is no green, actively growing tissue, to be damaged by frost. It is almost like standing hay! We see the livestock eating the seeds, which we hope will reduce the number of plants that germinate next year.
Growing into Winter
New growing-season-extension technologies, along with some ingenious uses of old technologies, have helped us strategically plan for the harvest of greens all winter. As the ginger is harvested from the high tunnel (a greenhouse-type structure heated only by the sun where we plant directly in the ground) right now, we are seeding lettuces, greens, arugula and such. In this double-polypropylene-walled greenhouse, the sunny days will keep the soil warm and foster good growth until the Persephone Days, when the combination of short days and typically cold temperatures shut down all growth. So the idea is to get plants up to harvestable size before late November, where they await harvest in suspended animation until growth restarts in early February.
Our haygrove high tunnel is a single layer of polypropylene plastic with open ends and arches high enough to drive equipment through to till the ground and plant crops. Here, we planted kale, collards and the like—foods that can be harvested all winter, we hope. A heavy, wet snow could damage the haygrove structure, so cross your fingers we do not have to fight that battle.
And then there are old-fashioned, woven-cotton row covers that we place directly over plant rows to hold soil warmth like a blanket. We bend 1/2-inch electrical conduit, or #9 wire, to make arches and poke them into the ground to form low tunnels. The covers must be weighted down along the edges or will be lost to the slightest breeze. This system is more vulnerable to wind, harder to harvest from and sure to collapse under heavy snows, but it protects the plants enough to keep the kale coming a little longer. In the winter, we have to wait for the plants to thaw before harvest, and sometimes the covers are frozen to the ground, but usually we can work around the forecast to get some harvested for winter CSA shares and the year-round farmers markets.
Even though it feels like global warming is upon us, we are actively preparing various cold-weather plant-protection systems so we can all eat local, organic greens all year. As we have said many times before, we make no apologies for having some type of greens in every CSA share, and we appreciate market customers who confirm that interest as you brave the elements in search of greens all winter.
This week, you have a rare opportunity to enjoy tasty, summertime tomatoes alongside the precious plants of fall in November. Right now, the plants in the season-extension structures look good, the row covers will go on next week, the livestock are contentedly grazing safely, and things seem well, given the weather pattern we are in. But then again, it’s risky business to count on the weather. —Mac Stone