tomatoes

A Long and Productive Summer

It’s been a long, sweaty summer, and even with continued help from some of the teaching faculty (Steve, Emily, Chelsea, Mary, and Xavier), our farm manager Eric has been very busy.

Eight harvest tubs are arranged, each with its own crop: red mini bells, mini eggplant, jalapenos, orange mini bells, Asian eggplant, tomatoes, yellow mini bells, and okra

We made several large harvests of commodities that went into long-term storage: garlic, onions, butternut squash, and potatoes. For every one pound of seed potatoes that Eric planted back in February, we harvested 14.5 pounds of fresh, organic potatoes back, which is a great return.

Many of the summertime crops, such as beans and squash, have also been very productive, with many still yielding, like tomatoes, mini bell peppers, mini eggplant, Asian eggplant, and okra.

With autumn just around the corner, our long-term crops of peanuts, parsnips, and leeks are continuing to develop and grow.

With the return of students, we have just begun to harvest our edible summer cover crop of pinkeye purple hull peas.

And finally, the perennials and flowers that Eric planted earlier in the spring, like asparagus, have been very productive.

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

Soil Blocking, or Making Soil Brownies

Students always call them soil brownies, and they do look tasty!

Soil blocking, which was developed in Europe and largely popularized in the US by legendary organic farmer, Elliot Coleman, is a practice of starting seedlings in cubes of compressed soil. While Rural Studio Farm still makes use of plastic flats for starting seeds of certain crops, soil blocks eliminate the waste and expense of using plastic containers.

The blocks are made in metal molds from a mixture of soil made here on site at Rural Studio Farm, which makes them more labor-intensive to begin with—and thus might not be suitable for larger scale farms.

However, farm manager Eric has found that, overall, seeds tend to germinate and grow better in blocks, and transplanting soil blocks into the field is faster and easier than having to remove each individual seedling from its tray.

Throughout the past two weeks, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers that were started in 2-inch soil blocks were upgraded to 4-inch blocks to allow the roots to continue to develop before being transplanted to the field once the soil has warmed up more. The 4-inch mold is made with a 2-inch cavity to accommodate such an upgrade.

There are other advantages to soil blocks. As the growing roots reach the edge of a block, they stop growing in what is called “air pruning,” as opposed to wrapping themselves about as they would in a conventional pot or cell. Indeed, as the blocks are transplanted directly into the ground, root disturbance is almost entirely eliminated, meaning that more delicate plants that cannot tolerate root disturbance can be started this way.

Greenhouse Tomatoes

Nothing says summer quite like fresh tomatoes. However, because of Rural Studio Farm’s greenhouse, our tomatoes are already setting fruit in early April from tomatoes that students started at the end of January.

But growing tomatoes in a greenhouse is a little different than in the field. For one thing, there is less space for such sprawling, vining plants to grow. So in the greenhouse, students take advantage of vertical growth by supporting the growing tomatoes with strings dropped from a support line. Then students pruned the plants down to a single growing stem.

Tomato plants produce suckers at the nodes between stem and branch (coming off at about a 45-degree angle) that will eventually grow into separate stems, each producing its own branches and fruit, and students prune these off, sometimes daily once growth takes off. Such pruning produces fewer tomatoes overall, but these tomatoes are larger and more plants can be packed closer together, producing a higher total yield. Students also removed all branches below the first fruit cluster to open up air movement around the disease-prone plants, especially since airflow is limited in the greenhouse.

Since our farm manager Eric is working solo right now, he also started some smaller determinate tomatoes, which max out at five feet tall, in an effort to try and minimize such high-need practices, since determinate tomatoes require less support and only very minimal sucker pruning (only below the first flower cluster) or else yields are reduced.

It’s Beginning to Feel Like Spring

A thunderstorm drenches the farm

It’s official: 2019-20 has been the wettest winter in Alabama’s recorded history. Our region got around 27 inches, with over 12 inches in February alone. It’s pretty tough for Eric and the students to work in those conditions, even so, they finished the new beds and got them all planted out with food and cover crops.

On rainy days, however, there is still plenty to work on in the seed house and the greenhouse. Despite all the cold and rain, this week really felt like the beginning of spring, as students have started some warm-season crops. They transplanted tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, which were started in the seed house in mid-January, into the greenhouse right around March 1. As they grow, the students will prune and train these tomatoes to grow on string lines suspended from the greenhouse.

Students and Eric talk about greenhouse plans

They also began some cucumber and zucchini seeds to be transplanted into the greenhouse (statistically, there is likely to be another freeze, so the field will need to wait). Like the tomatoes, the cucumbers will grow vertically, so students suspended a trellis for the vines to climb up.