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Homestead reflections: Vegetable health & frost hardiness

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 November Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Tomato and pepper trays under south window

Here it is mid October and we are surrounded by beauty and abundance! Two nights ago (October 14) it was predicted we’d have our first killing frost. Pru and I spent the day harvesting and hauling all the tender fruits. The kitchen and basement are overflowing with baskets and crates of ripe and almost ripe tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, and winter and summer squash. Now the task will be to preserve the bounty: the tomatillos and jalapenos plus our previously harvested garlic and onions will become a spicy hot green salsa. As I write this, the delicious, aroma of green tomato, tomatillo and immature butternut squash curry is wafting my way as Pru is simmering it on the wood cook-stove.

 We finished the last of the cucumbers yesterday, so we’re experimenting with a tomatillo substitute for the raita, maybe it’ll become a new staple! The winter squash and pumpkins are curing in the greenhouse, as are the seedpods from those experimental castor bean plants. The sweet peppers are in trays under the south windows in hopes they will continue to ripen. We love them when fully ripened to red and gold packed with vitamin C. We like to simply slice them and pop them into freezer bags and freeze. They are easy to use, just grab a handful of frozen slices and sauté or throw in the stew pot.

Anyway, we decided, that it was late enough in the season to skip trying to save the plants by covering with blankets to protect them from the cold. The temperatures and amount of sun have diminished to the point that the heat loving plants have slowed way down. So, as I harvested, I cut the sweet pepper plants at soil level and added them to the compost. I am a firm believer in leaving roots in the soil where they can do the most good. Leaving the soil horizon intact while they decay, becoming great food for the soil web, and, when decomposed, become channels for water and air to penetrate deep into the soil.

Tomato Plants after frostThe tomato plants continue to be incredible! Upon reaching the top of the six-foot high trellis, they continued to grow and the weight of the fruit caused the tops to drop down but they still flourish. As I wrote last month, they have been amazing plants this year, even in spite of the drought, fully green from soil to tippy-top. I didn’t cut them down as I harvested, as the abundance of green fruit would make good chicken food even if it were frosted. 

So, waking up Saturday morning we did see heavy frost in the pasture. The grass was white and brittle and the chicken water was frozen. We watched, from the kitchen window as the sun began to hit the garden, waiting to see the damage. Incredibly there was very little. Upon walking through, we discovered that the tomatillo and squash plants were hit but not killed. The tomatoes and hot peppers were still in great shape with no perceivable damage.  Too bad those sweet pepper plants were consigned to an early death.

We’ve been wondering about these results. The temperature supposedly was 27 degrees F. Was there that much of a temperature difference between the pasture and the garden even though they abut one another, or could it be that the garden soil has been improved more than the pasture? My unscientific opinion would be that the soil difference is the answer. As I wrote last month, after an initial stress period due to the drought and my hesitation to do major watering, the garden plants did a significant turn-around and became amazingly healthy producers of abundant harvests. I’m guessing that these healthy plants were more resilient and the increased photosynthesis pumped more sugars through them. This extra sugar acted as antifreeze protecting the plants vascular structure during the cold temperatures.

Another reason to work with the soil! My mantra is becoming: improve the soil and all else will follow. Here’s a quote from last month’s reflections: “Well, the moral, if any, is soil health: increase soil fungal activity, keep the soil covered, cover crop as much as possible, use no till methods, address soil mineral deficiencies, make and use compost, and love what you are doing!”

Speaking of improving the soil, the cover crops also did splendidly during the frost. The mix I planted after harvesting the garlic is now over 4-feet tall, very densely planted and when it is finally killed by a deep freeze, will become a thick mat of mulch to cover and protect the bed overwinter. I recently read an article about research into perennial cover crops, which is being conducted at the Rodale Institute. This research was designed to determine which potential plants could meet certain criteria, such as, height, growth rate, hardiness, and the ability to withstand the impact of machinery.

I was delighted to see sorrel on their list of plants that they considered but later dropped as the cost and availability of seed for large farms was prohibitive. However, as I mentioned in the September newsletter, I’ve been experimenting with sorrel here at Wild Browse. There is no science involved, just my observations. Growing sorrel with sweet peppers seemed to work well. The sorrel created a useful understory, covering the soil between pepper plants and providing some light shading. Twice I had to crimp it to keep it from overtopping the baby pepper plants. However, once the peppers grew in height and circumference, they coexisted quite well. This was the most abundant crop of peppers we’ve ever grown with hardly any damage from sunscald. But, was this due to the sorrel, or the season, or previous soil improvements, or other unknown factors? I do know I’m going to continue with the experiment next year. The sorrel is a "garden weed", so why not try to coexist with it and make less work (weeding) while possibly improving the soil?

The trial with purslane, as a perennial ground cover, amongst the beets didn’t fare as well. The area where the beets were planted immediately became overgrown with purslane.  I thought, why not try an experiment. The first beet seedlings were eaten by something when they were very small. By the time I went to replant, the purslane was well established. I made rows for the beets by cutting 3-inch swaths through the purslane and replanted the seeds. There was poor germination (old seeds?) and the few beets that survived did well but the overall crop was a failure. I think I’ll retry this again as a planned experiment and try to do better on the timing when seeding the beets.

Fun at the pondNot wanting to be a dull girl or homesteader, we have also had a bit of fun. Our annual visit to the local bog to pick cranberries was not only productive and enjoyable, but the scenery was spectacular. It was "a Bluebird Day", as Pru's dad was fond of saying. The glittering pond reflected the surrounding brilliantly colored trees, shrubs, and grasses as well as the deep blue sky! It was so inspiring that we added a canoe/kayak paddle to the schedule for my Louisiana brother’s 5-hour whirlwind visit. He had skipped out while visiting his in-laws to come see us.  As an extra bonus, we were able to find some sheltered plants where he could harvest a few unfrosted cranberries.

We fit a lot of fun and, of course, even some work into that brief visit. Starting with a homestead tour then eating the excellent curry, the paddle and, on his insistence, a work project. He helped dig a trench so we could replace a damaged electric wire. All in all a very jam-packed, fun and rewarding five hours. Thanks Larry, but next time, please make it a longer visit so we could get a lot more chores accomplished!


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