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ORGANIC VEGETABLE TIPS

It’s great to be able to grow prize-winning celeriac, salsify and okra, but how are you doing with your ‘everyday’ vegetables? Like many gardeners, you may be finding that your old tried and true organic methods of growing even the most basic vegetables aren’t yielding the results you want with the unusual weather patterns we've had for the past few years. Excesses of drought, heat, rainfall or low temperatures may signal the need for a shift in technique. To give you some ideas, COGNITION consulted commercial and home organic vegetable growers from different parts of the country to find out their secrets of success with four of the most popular home-grown veggies: potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and lettuce. ;

 

 

Lettuce

by Janette Haase, Lyndhurst, Ontario (commercial lettuce grower);

Lettuce is by far the most beautiful vegetable in my garden. Tender, smooth, pale green butterheads; frilly, brilliant red leaf lettuces; heirloom varieties such as the deep bronze ‘Oakleaf’ or the red-tipped ‘Deertongue’: lettuce offers an incredible variety of tastes, textures and colors.

Lettuce can be harvested at either the small leaf stage or as individual heads. To grow leaf lettuce, I broadcast seed over a small area (approximately one tablespoon of seed per 20 square feet), lightly rake to cover and then water on a weekly basis. This lettuce grows almost like a carpet, suppressing weeds and retaining moisture. It can be cut when it is 3-5 weeks old and, if watered regularly, can be recut 3-4 times before it becomes tough or bitter. I mix cutting lettuce with other baby greens such as arugula, japanese mustards and cress for a mesclun-type salad.

My real love affair is with head lettuce for it is here that the incredible variety and beauty become apparent. There are varieties of lettuce suitable for every season. Cook’s Garden offers some 40 different types, with an emphasis on color and taste. Johnny’s Selected Seeds also offers excellent variety and quality, including the Batavian or crisphead varieties which are by far the best and most dependable lettuces I grow. These were developed in Europe and have excellent salad quality and taste, forming large, non-bitter heads spring, summer and fall. Butterhead, Romaine and leaf lettuces do best in the spring and fall.

I start all head lettuce in 1.5- or 2-inch soil blocks which I transplant after 3-4 weeks. I do not direct seed because germination is not consistent above 24C and because lettuce needs room to form proper heads. My experience is that thinning is always too little, too late. I germinate the blocks in a shady spot in the summer and transplant at one foot spacings. Lettuce requires fairly rich soil and the blood and bone meal and composted manure in the blocks are sufficient for good growth.

Transplants should be set out on cool, overcast days or in the evening and then watered immediately. They should be watered every 4-7 days, depending on the weather, and kept free of weeds. Steady, uninterrupted growth is the key to producing good quality heads. Lettuce should always be harvested in the morning as 70% of its sugar content is lost after 10 a.m., returning overnight.

Here in Eastern Ontario, I start my first seeds in early March and transplant them into a greenhouse or coldframe in early April. I seed on a weekly basis until August, but every three weeks is probably sufficient for home consumption. My fall lettuce must be seeded by about July 24 for transplanting in the second week of August. This planting will give beautiful heads that can hold their quality into November if protected by a covering such as reemay. Lettuce can freeze almost solid and still be usable as long as it defrosts before the sun hits it. A mid-August seeding can be planted in a cold frame or greenhouse and harvested until mid-December, surviving
-20C under a three-foot mound of fluffed-up reemay or straw. ;

 

 

Tomatoes

by Kelly Dub, La Broquerie, Manitoba (market gardener);

I begin my seedlings in the greenhouse. From the beginning of March to about April 5, I sow tomatoes in 2-inch blocks. The soil mix used here is Eliot Coleman’s recipe (The New Organic Grower). These are transplanted into 4-inch blocks when they reach the six-leaf stage.

During their greenhouse stay, I put the tomato plants through a rigorous training program. It is very windy here, so the plants need to be strong to survive without snapping off later in the garden. I run my arms back and forth over the entire crew of 800 to 1200 plants. After a few weeks of this daily routine, they are ready to brave the Manitoba winds.

I maintain the greenhouse nighttime temperature at 10-13C so that the plants can take the cool evenings later on. We always keep tarps close by to cover the plants in emergencies.

After their early childhood in the greenhouse, the plants spend their adolescence outside. Throughout May (and later), I use floating row covers to protect them from the elements. They then become grownups and head out to the fields to produce their wonderful fruit.

They are planted in rows 18 inches apart and tied to stakes. Each plant is placed deep in the ground, with part of the stem buried to encourage a long root system. Strings are attached from stake to stake to help the plants climb and reach for the sun. Each plant is helped along with a scoopful of compost and watered with willow water at the time of its final transplant. The plants are also fed seaweed or fish fertilizer at flowering time. I keep reemay cloth nearby to protect them from possible late frosts.

Weeding around the plants is part of maintenance. In and around the tomato patch I plant marigolds (French and my favorite, ‘Little Gem’, a fern-leaf type) to ward off nematodes. When the tomatoes are producing fruit toward the end of July, we remove suckers between the main stem and the leaf axils. This encourages a higher yield and earlier ripening of fruit. Later on, we snip off the tip of the plant.

We harvest daily and continue the maintenance. As frost may hit as early as the second week of August here, we use reemay, tarps and overhead irrigation to extend the season as long as possible. For emergencies, in strategic locations in the garden we have set up barrel stoves which, when teamed up with the irrigation, produce a thick mist to cover plants and protect them from the cold.

In Manitoba, we’ve had the best success with ‘Prairie Pride’. Although smaller, it gives a sure crop of sweet, prolific fruit. ‘Star Fire’, ‘Beefsteak’, ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Fantastic’ are also sure producers. ‘Viva Italia’ and ‘Roma’ are best bets for paste tomatoes. For cherry types I swear by ‘Sweet Million’. ‘Brandywine’, a heritage favorite with a rich spicy flavor, needs to be started by March 15.

 

 

Carrots

by Cathy Smallwood, St. John’s, Newfoundland (home gardener);

Good carrots start with the right kind of soil. Unless you plan to grow one of the miniature varieties like ‘Thumbelina’, you will need deep, loose, loamy soil. That means out with the rocks and in with lots of organic matter like compost and well rotted manure mixed to a depth of about a foot and a half. (Manure that is too fresh will result in forked and/or hairy roots.) Check your soil's pH level, especially if you add peat moss. Carrots like acid soil (6.5 pH). Adding peat moss is a good way to lower pH and condition the soil. If you amend the soil in the fall, you can start preparing it as soon as the snow is gone in the spring! Use a hoe to create hills for your rows, and this will help the soil to warm up and dry out.

Carrots seem to take forever to germinate, and even longer to grow, so start early. Mix the seed with sand or use a seeding tool to help sow it evenly; aim to space the seeds about 1/4" apart. Cover the seed with finely sifted compost, spray lightly to dampen and keep evenly moist until germination. Covering the rows with boards is a popular way to ensure better germination of carrot seed, but the boards should be lifted as soon as the first shoots start to appear. If you plant radish seeds in the same row, they will germinate first and mark the row for you.

Next to cultivating deep soil, keeping the weeds at bay is the other critical task. Once the carrot tops are recognizable, you have to weed, weed, weed! Keep your hoe well sharpened and use it. After clearing away the weeds, pull the soil up around the tops of the carrots to keep their shoulders covered so they don’t get sunburnt and turn green. A gardener friend mulches with hay to keep the weeds under control and the soil moist. She found that compost worked well as a mulch but seemed to disappear quickly.

Thinning is important. Aim to space your mature carrots about 1.5" apart. This job is best done in a couple of steps, the first when they are quite small. Use your fingers to pinch them out or scrape though the row with a garden rake. These first thinnings are compost. Carrots don’t transplant well, so take care not to leave gaping holes in the rows. A second thinning can be done when the roots are tender little gourmet carrots.

Carrots can be pulled as needed throughout the summer and fall. Dig out what you need for the winter and store them in moist sand or in perforated plastic bags in a cool, dark place. Before the ground freezes, heavily mulch any that are left in the garden with a thick layer of hay. These carrots can be harvested throughout the winter by pulling back the mulch, or they can be one of the first fresh spring veggies you enjoy.

As for varieties to grow, Nantes are nice looking, but for great flavor try Chantenays. These big, stubby, deep orange carrots have lots of vitamin A and store well.

 

Potatoes

by Mary Perlmutter, Fenelon Falls, Ontario (home gardener);

 

Every summer I plant at least four varieties of potatoes. ‘Austrian Crescent’ or ‘Fingerling’, a white-skinned crescent-shaped potato with yellowish flesh, is the earliest to plant and to mature in my garden and is perfect for making potato salad. ‘Yukon Gold’, a good storage potato, is planted next for baking and for scalloped potatoes. Then there is a long potato with very white flesh and reddish colored skin; I was given seed for this potato (but not a name!) by a neighbor who grew them at Mary Lake, Ontario. ‘B.C. Blue’ has deep blue skin and blue flesh.

I dig my planting holes and line them with a mixture of pine needles and oak leaves. This is to bring down my 7.7 pH as much as possible because potatoes love acid soil. With that mixture in the planting hole, I find that there is very little soil to wash off when I dig the potatoes up in the fall.

To plant, I place a whole potato, or a section with at least two eyes, into each hole with the eyes facing up. I cover them with more acidic mulch or peat moss, and then replace the soil I dug out for the planting hole. Soil can be hilled up around the plants as they grow. Some people use a very thick straw mulch instead of hilling with soil.

Naturally my biggest enemy is the Colorado potato beetle. Part of my daily routine is to take an ice cream pail half filled with strong soapy water and two tablespoons of cooking oil floating on top of the water. With my garden gloves on, I carefully pick or flick the beetles into the soapy pail. They get coated with the oil and are unable to crawl out. Then I check each row again to find the clusters of yellow or orange eggs laid on the undersides of the potato leaves and crush them between my gloved thumb and index finger.

Small tubers are starting to form when the plants flower, and these can be gently fished out as needed for summer meals. The main crop is ready when the vines and leaves have died back. In my Central Ontario garden, potatoes can be left in the ground until about the second week of November. After leaving the harvested potatoes in a dry, frost-free place to allow their skins to dry for 24 hours, I store them in bushel baskets covered with newspapers in a cool, dark place.

After I dig up my potatoes in the fall, I then plant five cloves of garlic in each hole, one in each corner, and one in the center of the hole. This method ensures a good crop of garlic the next summer.

The potato patch is always moved to a new location in the garden in the spring. I quite often interplant my potatoes with legumes (peas or beans) which help to provide nitrogen by the nodules on their roots. I never pull up the legumes by their roots; I cut them off at soil level to leave the nodules in the soil.

 

 

Copyright 1996.COG.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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