The oaks have finally burst into leaf, so it's time to get the tomatoes out of Vermadise and into the garden. As noted earlier, one of the things we want to do with tomatoes this summer is to adapt some of the work done by Charles Wilber as presented in his book How to Grow World Record Tomatoes: a Guinness Champion Reveals His All-Organic Secrets.
The first technique that Wilber uses is to lay out a grid of flakes of hay, a technique which creates a dense mulch around each plant. One advantage of this set up is that it will keep the tomatoe patch relatively free from weeds. Tomato roots run close to the surface and hoeing out the weeds necessarily does harm to the roots; by covering the ground with two inch thick hay flakes, the soil stays moist and weed free. By using soaker hoses, we'll be able to get efficient use of water without getting the leaves wet--something which helps control blight.
We're also delighted to see that the warm weather is bringing on our baby red and Yukon gold potatoes. Another week or two of growth and they'll be ready to mulch in for the summer. That will allow the potatoes to form at the interface between the soil and the mulch, which makes digging them in the fall that much easier.
We were so pleased with the hay-flake grid we laid out for the tomatos that we decided to see how well that worked with the Three Sisters guilds that we'll be planting in the remainer of that bench.
The Three Sisters guild involves planting corn, beans and squash in the same hill. These plants form a guild in that they each contribute to the overall functioning of the other plants in the guild. The corn provides the framework that the beans need to get up off the ground, the beans fix nitrogen which supports the growth of the corn and squash, while the squash's broad leaves prove a dense cover that prevents weeds from competing for the moisture and nutrients which the Three Sisters need.
In keeping with the traditional theme, we're going with Oaxacan Green corn from Seed Saver's Exchange. Oaxacan's smooth emerald green kernels grow on 6-10" ears and have been used for centuries by the Zapotec Indians of southern Mexico to make green flour tamales.
Usually corn is planted in a more boxish array so that the wind can carry the pollen, but we're looking to honing our hand pollination skills. Saving seeds is key part of achieving a critical mass of sustainability, and in order to grow more than one type of corn, you need to be able to control the pollination of the ears you want to use for seed; this more linear layout will allow us easier access to our corn patch.
The tomato variety that we selected to use in our effort to duplicate Charle's Wilbur's record setting techniques is the heirloom variety known as the Brandywine. Then, to add a bit more interest to the project, we also put in six of another heirloom variety that's fairly new to the US--the Black Russian tomato.
Tomato Growers Supply describes the Black Russian as producing compact, indeterminate plants that bear plenty of wonderfully rich, dark mahogany-brown tomatoes averaging about 4 ozs. The fruit is smooth and somewhat elongated with a pointed tip. Black tomatoes have a delicious blend of sugar and acid and a distinctive, complex flavor that is to be savored. Some folks say this variety is one of the best-tasting black tomatoes and prefer it also for its nice, medium size.
We're always looking for interesting vegetables that we can incorporate into value-added products both for our kitchen, and so that our garden crew can market them to generate personal income. The novelty of these tomatoes should make for some interesting sauces and pickles.
The weather turned chilly again right after we planted the corn, so in order to warm up the soil and help germination, we spread out some 10'x20' clear plastic over that part of the garden.
The main garden is coming along nicely--it's hard to say what part of the gardening season is the most fun, but it's hard to beat that point when the seedlings break free of the soil since that marks the transition from the possible to the "happening right now" phase :-)
The flake mulch system is working out very well--it's a "keeper" technique that we're looking forward to using in the years to come. As the hay flakes take on moisture, they expand to create pockets that protect the young plants from the cool over-night temps--we're at 2,000' in elevation, so the nights can get chilly even as the day time temps climb into the 90's.
We're especially pleased with how the combination of hay flakes and clear plastic is accelerating the germination and growth of the corn. Because of our cool spring-time soil temps, corn has traditionally been a difficult crop to grow here; the plastic is doing a great job of heating up the soil with the additional benefit of retaining and focusing moisture on the germinating seed. As you can see in the picture above, the plastic sags down over the open space in the mulch with causes the drops of moisture that condense on the underside of the plastic to migrate to the middle and fall on the corn.
The variety we're growing is drought resistant, but it's native to the highlands of Central America so getting it warm enough to take off has been a concern. I'd say that the corn under the plastic cover is already at least a week ahead of the corn that's hasn't been covered so we're already getting our hopes up for a good crop of green corn this summer.
The bales of wasted straw (straw that sat out over winter and was available free for the hauling) are also working out well; the strawberries are getting settled in and are already setting fruit. The primary goal of this bed will be to produce more strawberry plants for use in the aquaponics system per the vertical grow pipes that Jay is developing.