Blog

Maters and Taters

Few things signal Summer like fresh-dug potatoes and red, ripe tomatoes and both of these are favorite crops at Rural Studio Farm! After starting them in mid-Winter, we have been harvesting them in abundance.

Tomatoes and peppers are both members of the solanum genus (along with eggplants), which is part of the bigger Solanaceae, or nightshade, family. Their close relatedness is one of the reasons you should practice good crop rotation and avoid planting one of these crops in the same location in successive years. Many of the same pests and diseases will afflict both tomatoes and potatoes, for example, so always planting in the same spot makes the pests’ jobs easier.

Potatoes

Wild potatoes are quite small and originated in the Andes. True to their inclusion in the nightshade family, wild potatoes are also poisonous, containing an alkaloid called solanine. Domesticated potatoes can also express solanine when left in direct sunlight, which is evident by the skins turning green.

Potatoes are not typically grown from seed but rather from seed potatoes. These are quality potatoes saved from a previous harvest and replanted. The highest quality seed potatoes, which have been inspected and controlled for spoilage and disease, are available from seed catalogs, but these are often quite expensive—especially organic seed potatoes.

Buying them from a catalog also ensures that the potatoes are of a given variety. As an alternative, you can grow potatoes from those bought at a grocery. Even though the quality is less determinate, and you don’t always know exactly which cultivar you have, we have had great results growing supermarket potatoes at Rural Studio Farm. If you want to buy supermarket potatoes be sure to get organic ones, as the conventional potatoes are often sprayed with a chemical that inhibits sprouting. Big seed potatoes can be cut into smaller pieces and planted individually for bigger yields. Each piece should be no smaller than about three ounces, and each piece should have at least one eye on it, which is where the tubers sprout.

For every pound of seed potatoes planted, you want to try and see a return of about 10 pounds, though under ideal conditions this can be much higher. Any return under six pounds probably means there were insect problems or the plants were not getting enough water. We started harvesting ours early for new potatoes, but we still got 8.8 pounds of potatoes back for every pound of seed potatoes we planted for a total harvest of 268 pounds.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are actually berries, and cherry tomatoes are closer to wild tomatoes than the huge beefsteaks we often think of.

A student transplants a tomato seedling into the field as the sun rises against the pines

The Spanish were the first to encounter them and bring them back to Europe, but tomatoes had a rocky start before becoming so closely associated with Spanish and Italian food. In the 1700s, some aristocrats became sick and died after eating tomatoes, and the fruit even earned the nickname “poison apples.” But it was the pewter plates the tomato dishes were served on that caused illness: the acidic tomato juice leeched lead from the plates and poisoned those who ate from them.

Tomatoes can be hard to grow in the South, especially in large numbers. The high heat means it can be difficult to keep them well watered, and the high humidity and heavy rain storms promote fungal and other soil-borne diseases. And then there is the huge amount of insect pressure and the need to support the sprawling vines. In general, we prefer to grow cherry tomatoes, which tend to be hardier and more productive. If a few cherry tomatoes get damaged then it’s no big deal, but if you lose several big tomatoes then the loss is more significant.

Over the years, we have been fine-tuning which support methods work best, and which varieties hold up best in the field. This season we are growing two kinds of indeterminate (vining), three kinds of determinate (bush), and six kinds of cherry tomatoes to compare how they perform and how they taste. It is especially important given our new CSA, since tomatoes are beloved by so many. And they are a Summer staple in our salad bar.

So whether its potato salad or a tomato sandwich, our solanum crops provide some of the best eating of the year.

Doing Things!

Man oh man what a month it’s been. Last post, our team was preparing for a fast approaching dig day, and dig we did! After many batter boards and much anticipation, we were happy to have Tyler from T & C Excavating come out and help us officially break ground! Over the course of one morning, Tyler and crew managed to dig up a literal mountain of dirt to make way for our driveway and footings.

After a couple days of placing and tying rebar we followed fast behind with an early morning concrete pour. All of our fellow leftovers showed up to help us out, and we even had a special guest star all the way from Project Horseshoe Farm! A couple truck loads (from the generous Crosby-Carmichael Inc.) later, and we found our footing(s). Nothing says “no stopping us now” like a few thousand pounds of concrete. As the concrete set, we also placed vertical pieces of rebar for the block mason to tie into as he builds our block wall. (Thanks again to Crosy-Carmichael Inc. for their donation of concrete!)

students watch concrete pour
freshly poured concrete footings

Since then, we’ve turned our attention to the driveway and third volume. Steve stopped by to give us a quick Bobcat tutorial and Toews Brothers brought in new red dirt to replace the old topsoil. This allowed us to start building our driveway. For now, the goal is to get a gravel surface suitable for delivery trucks. Keeping the gravel just below our desired grade will allow us to come back later and either pave or add a finer layer of gravel. Over at the third volume, we hand dug our trenches and prepped the area for plumbing and formwork. All in a month’s work!

heavily edited picture of student digging
We let Davis edit this one all by himself!

Spirits are high here in Hale. Next time you hear from us, we might even be raising the roof!

cat leans over phone

Ribbon Cutting in Johnson City, TN

Group in front yard of home watching dedication ceremony
Representatives from the City and community gathered to celebrate the dedication of a new affordable, energy-efficient home.

On May 15, the Front Porch Initiative team celebrated a ribbon cutting with Eastern Eight Community Development Corporation (E8CDC) for a new affordable, energy efficient infill home in Johnson City, Tennessee. The project represents outcomes possible when mission-aligned partners work together; this collaboration was made possible thanks to the commitment of E8CDC, the City of Johnson City, Johnson City Housing Authority, NeighborWorks, Appalachian Service Project, and Auburn University Rural Studio.

In 2011, Eastern Eight purchased a piece of property in a well-established neighborhood only two miles from downtown Johnson City. The site fronts a tree-lined street and slopes down in the rear, with alley access and a wide view of the neighborhood. The 50-foot-wide infill lot with setbacks limiting the buildable width to 34 feet, ideal for a house in the Front Porch Product Line. E8CDC selected the two-bedroom Sylvia’s House prototype for the site, with porches addressing both the front yard and back alley. The resulting intervention matches the scale and rhythm of the existing neighborhood fabric. Durable exterior materials minimize required maintenance, and a tight building envelope with high-performance mechanical systems minimize energy required to heat and cool the home.

Aerial view of houses
The new home fits comfortably into the fabric of the existing neighborhood.

E8CDC was awarded HUD Community Development Block Grant funding from the area’s HOME Consortium to enhance local housing opportunities. E8CDC partnered with Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a non-profit builder historically focused on repairs and replacing homes in their five-state service area. When breaking ground on this project in April 2021, merely a year into the pandemic, the full impacts of rapidly rising land and housing costs, a tightening labor market, and emerging supply chain issues were not yet known, nor their effects on the affordability equation. However, E8CDC always returned to the most important question: “What does it cost if we don’t build this home, and others like it, when they are needed now, more than ever?” Now that the home is complete, it will be sold to a family in the local community.

Rural Studio is both proud and humbled to have been included in this partnership. Together we have all learned a lot on this project, and we look forward to working hard to do again and again!

Press coverage of the event:

Johnson City Press: “Eastern Eight CDC unveils new affordable housing project” by Sarah Owens | May 17, 2022

Group photo with Rural Studio team and partners in front of home

Onion and Garlic Harvest

One of our favorite events in late Spring here at the Rural Studio Farm is digging up all of the tasty onions and garlic. These alliums—along with shallots, leeks, chives, and scallions which we also grow—are versatile, easy to grow, and keep for a long time in storage.

Two students excavate mature garlic bulbs from a raised bed

Onions

Onions likely originated in the Middle East and Central Asia and have been cultivated for around 7,000 years. There are short-day and long-day onions, so named because of the number of daylight hours that signals the plant to start forming bulbs, which are modified stems that serve as a food reservoir for the plant. As Earth approach the Summer Solstice, daylight hours increase and days grow longer the farther from the equator one goes. So here in the South, short-day onions perform much better, while regions above about 37° latitude are more suitable for long-day onions because of the added day length.

For short-day onions, the earlier they are planted, the larger the bulbs. We plant our onions in February here at Rural Studio. This year we grew onions from both seed (started in January) and onion sets, which are small onion plants that were shipped to us. Both varieties are sweet onions: one is a Walla Walla-type that is suitable for growing in the South (Walla Walla is in Southeastern Washington), and the other is a Vidalia-type onion. These two regions are famous for their sweet onions because they boast volcanic soil that is low in sulfur. The low sulfur content means that onions grown there are mild. It is the sulfur-containing compounds that give onions their tear-inducing pungency and sharp flavor. Unfortunately, these same sulfur compounds, like allyl disulfide and allicin, are also responsible for many of the health benefits associated with eating onions (as well as garlic).

Once the tops begin to dry out and fall over it means that the onions are ready for harvest. After they are harvested, we then laid the onions out to cure with the tops and roots intact because any cuts can allow pathogens to reach the bulb and cause rot. During the curing process, the tops dry out and so does the outer skin, protecting the onions so that they can keep for months in storage.

Garlic

Garlic is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world and most likely originated in Central Asia. In most regions, it is best to plant garlic in the Fall because you get larger yields than Spring-planted garlic. We typically plant ours in November, like we did for this year’s crop. It is important to mulch the garlic to suppress weeds, protect the plants during the winter, and retain moisture as the weather warms moving into Spring.

Just like onions, there are two types of garlic: soft-neck and hard-neck. Soft-neck garlics have smaller, more numerous cloves and generally keep in storage very well. Hard-neck garlics, on the other hand, are more winter-hardy, produce fewer cloves, often have stronger flavor, and produce a long edible flower stalk called a scape. We have grown both kinds of garlic here at the Rural Studio Farm; however, this year we only grew an unknown hard-neck garlic that we received from one of our neighbors.

The garlic will set scapes in mid-Spring. They are best harvested when they are young and tender, like asparagus, and they make for excellent eating. It is generally recommended to cut the scapes anyway, as they can draw nutrients away from the bulbs and reduce yields. If left, however, the garlic will produce a large globular light-purple inflorescence of flowers called bulbils. This year, we let the garlic flower and were rewarded by an abundance of butterflies and bees.

The time to harvest garlic is when the bottom two to four leaves begin to wilt and brown. Each leaf corresponds to an individual clove, and the browning indicates that the cloves are no longer actively growing. Like onions, the harvested garlic must cure for about two to three weeks to dry out and make suitable for long-term storage. The roots and necks of the garlic will only be trimmed once the heads have had time to fully cure. Most of them we will eat, but we will save some of the harvested bulbs to break apart and plant again this Fall.

This year we harvested 427 pounds of sweet onions and 67 pounds of garlic. We’ll be enjoying onions and garlic for many more meals to come!

Newbern Library Summer Reading Festival

student reading to children

Last weekend, the Newbern Library brought together kids and community members from across Hale County for the 2nd Annual Summer Reading Festival. This year’s theme was “Oceans of Possibilities,” and it wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of the library board and a host of volunteers. This year’s event featured ocean-themed crafts, face painting, read-aloud story time, fly-fishing demonstrations, live music, and science activities from both the University of West Alabama and Mississippi State University. The first ever craft market was a new addition this year, bringing in local artists and makers to sell their creations to festival-goers. Rounding out the two-day event were door prize giveaways and a delicious barbeque lunch. All of the activities were a huge hit, and the kids of Hale County are ready to get to reading this summer!

Cheers to everyone who made this event possible! A big thank you to library board members Mary Jane Everett, Angela Cabil, Andrew Freear, Jean Watson, Felicia Briggins, Freda Braxton, Kaleda Zanders, Betty Tims, and Carolyn Walthall, librarian Barbara Williams, and Rural Studio’s 3rd-year instructor Judith Seaman for planning such a huge event for the community.

Thank you to our current “leftover” students for running the craft and face painting tents; Hale County Extension for providing healthy snacks and story time; Hale County Hospital for running another healthy snack booth; Leah Vaughn with Mississippi State University’s NASA at My Library program; University of West Alabama for bringing out their Betabox activity center; and the McWane Science Center team. Also, huge thanks to Mark Carlisle, Barbara Turner, Kelvin Bell, and Patrick Braxton for lunch; Sweetbriar Tea & Coffee; Emily Neustrom for the music; Frances Sullivan and Bonita Benner for planning the Craft Market; and of course, every single attendee that came out to enjoy the fun! We have such a wonderful community in Newbern! We look forward to more events like these in the future.