cherry tomatoes

The Closing Of Summer

Summer draws to an end just as new students begin their time at Rural Studio. But all through the summer swelter, it has been last year’s leftover students—now graduated—whose work has kept the farm running.

A smiling student holds up a large plastic bag full of ripe cherry tomatoes of varying colors

Summer is the most productive time of the year, and each week we spend three days harvesting such things as fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, an assortment of peppers, eggplants, cantaloupes and watermelons, okra, cucumbers, black-eyed peas, snap beans, blackberries and blueberries, apples, Asian pears, leeks, scallions, and shallots, as well as herbs and fresh flowers.

Summer is also the hardest time of the year in terms of insect pest pressure and fast-spreading weeds. Yet, for the first time it never felt like the insects and weeds grew beyond our control. Each year, we diligently hand-weed and turn over crops to minimize the spread of unwanted seeds, and we are now seeing the long-term cumulative efforts pay off.

A long shot of four students stooping down to pick pea pods

Also, we are growing a wider diversity of plants with more aromatic flowers and herbs that make it more difficult for harmful insects to zero in on any one crop. Despite all the hard work and the heat, it’s been a pretty chill summer on the farm.

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.

Farm Support Structures

Some crops on the farm have a growth habit that is best supported with the helping hand of a built structure.

Growing pole beans climb the bamboo and twine trellis

One such crop is pole beans, which send out runners to wind their way up whatever they can find. So farm manager Eric Ball and Emily McGlohn built a bamboo and twine structure for the growing bean vines to wind themselves up, though the runners still need a little help to “train” them to find the right places to climb.

Eric built another structure last spring to support blackberry canes. In the first year of growth, the blackberries produce primocanes, which were pruned and managed so that they spread across suspended wires, making them nearly invisible. In the second year, the established primocanes become floricanes, where flowers grow and then bear the fruit Rural Studio Farm is now harvesting.

Because the primocanes were pruned and supported by the wires, the fruit is borne off the canes in easy-to-pick cascades at three-foot and five-foot heights. As the floricanes produce berries, the plants also sprout new primocanes that will be next year’s floricanes. Once fruiting ends, Eric will cut out the spent floricanes and begin pruning and training the primocanes for next year’s harvest.

Eric, Steve Long, Xavier Vendrell, and Mary English also built a support structure for determinate field tomatoes so that they will have something to hold them up once they get top-heavy and begin bearing tomatoes.

Meanwhile, in the greenhouse, plants supported on string-lines—cucumbers, tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes—continue to bear fruit. The greenhouse zucchini has also been extremely prolific