Category Archives: Vegetables

Meet the Amelia Demonstration Garden.

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This month’s post is a bit of a departure from our usual “Meet the Farmer” stories–for February, we are sharing some lessons we learned from our experiences managing the 2015 Extension demonstration garden in Amelia County. The following narrative was first shared in our newspaper column in the Amelia Bulletin Monitor. -Laura Siegle

The garden began in 2013 as a 1,200 square foot vegetable garden at the historic Raleigh Parish Glebe in Amelia Court House, and it was used for several tours and demonstrations. We enlarged the garden to 3,000 square feet in 2014 and expanded efforts to use it for youth, agriculture, and healthy lifestyle education. Following those efforts, we created a documentary video and featured it on the blog last year.

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For the third year in a row, we planted vegetables at the 2015 Extension demonstration garden at the Glebe for the purpose of tours and education, and along the way, we tracked our observations in hopes of sharing the results with gardeners who may benefit from our experiences. In fall of 2014, we planted a wheat cover crop which we killed in the spring with mowing and tillage prior to planting time. This cover crop protected the soil during winter rains, increased organic matter, returned nutrients when it was incorporated into the soil with a tiller, and even seemed to choke out some weeds. However, even after it was mowed, it was tough on the tiller and required us to run through it twice to adequately prepare the seedbed. We then planted snap beans, lima beans, patty pan squash, sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupe, and several heirloom tomato varieties.

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Insect pressure this year was minimal, and we observed a number of beneficial insects settling in our plants. Bean leaf beetles and various caterpillars fed on foliage, but neither caused enough damage to warrant treatment. In 2014, we picked bean leaf beetles off bean seedlings until they grew large enough to withstand damage, but that practice seemed unnecessary this year.

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Because we could tolerate some crop losses in our garden which might not be acceptable in other scenarios and because our garden is immediately adjacent to some bee hives, we decided to forgo the use of insecticides on our plants. We observed a variety of pollinators from honey bees to bumble bees active in the garden, and insecticides pose the greatest risk to these beneficial insects during the periods when they are readily observed foraging around the garden. Like clockwork, squash bugs showed up in the garden right around the time that our pollinators began taking advantage of blossoming plants, making it difficult to find an appropriate time to use insect controls. However, the squash bug population this year seemed lower in our garden than it was last year, perhaps because we discarded the 2014 cucurbit plant residue from the garden in the winter and removed egg masses we saw on leaves this year. Both practices can be helpful, although sometimes combining these practices with the use of an insecticide can be the only way to salvage a cucurbit crop and prevent the squash bugs from transmitting wilt to the plants.

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Bear in mind that controlling squash bugs and other insects chemically is a risk versus benefit decision, as you must consider the potential for extensive crop losses and pest population buildup in the garden against the risk to pollinators and beneficial insects in the vicinity.

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A few long bouts of dry weather we experienced in June and July helped us avoid early buildup of many of the foliar diseases that sneak in when weather stays wet. However, humidity and sequential rainy days later in the summer favored development of some foliar diseases in our cantaloupe and watermelon patch, treatable with copper and chlorothalonil. Around the middle of the season, we saw powdery mildew arrive on our squash which we treated with fair success using a copper spray.

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Naturally, weeds put constant pressure on the garden throughout the season. However, we judiciously hand-rouged out emerging lambsquarter and spiny pigweed before either could go to seed throughout 2014, and the results seemed to pay off in 2015 as only a few of these plants crept into the garden. We had too much bare, unused space last year where weeds easily grew, so we used shade to our advantage this year by planting as much available space as possible without planting too densely. This seemed to effectively weaken many grass seedlings. We removed weeds approximately biweekly and relied on a scuffle hoe early in the season when crabgrass seedlings were the primary concern. For larger weeds, we combined hand-weeding and hoeing. Carpetweed, spotted spurge, crabgrass, Bermuda grass, and goosegrass were the five most common weeds in the garden this year.

Many people ask about herbicides and pre-emergent control options, and I advise them to keep in mind that the pre-emergent options that are approved for vegetable gardens should only be used in places where desirable plants have already germinated and grown a few true leaves or else they, too, will be suppressed, just like the weed seeds. I have used trifluralin granules in the past for weed seed suppression. I had no experience with the organic option, corn gluten, so we applied this product to the garden as an experiment. We found that, just as stated on the label, this product did not offer long-term control comparable to trifluralin, but it did seem to keep weed seedlings from growing for a period of several weeks. We ceased using it in late summer, as we wanted the option to plant a fall crop. Remember, these pre-emergent products are designed to keep germinating seeds from growing into seedlings and should not be used in places where you are trying to germinate seeds of “good” plants.

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As for post-emergent herbicide sprays, we had good results spot-spraying a few trouble areas last year, but that did not seem necessary this year because our cultural controls were sufficient. Furthermore, gardeners need to realize that herbicides might selectively control grasses or broadleaf weeds or even both. Since most vegetables with the exception of corn are broadleaf plants, a broadleaf or broad-spectrum herbicide, for example, will not know the difference and can kill desirable garden plants that contact the product through drift or direct spray. Many vegetables are highly sensitive to glyphosate and other chemicals, and even organic herbicides can kill desirable plants. For these reasons, the average gardener who is not experienced with using these products and following their labels may be better off relying on tillage, hand-tools, and other cultural methods for weed control while desirable plants are in the immediate vicinity.

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The last facet of our garden’s management that may come as a surprise is the fact that we never watered the site. Getting water to the garden required logistical gymnastics in 2013 and 2014, so for 2015, I decided that the garden would simply be a “sink or swim with what you get” affair. I expected some plants to struggle, but was surprised at the garden’s resilience. This is not necessarily the best strategy for anyone who is aiming for high yields and minimal stress on plants, and we were blessed with a favorable year for rainfall. However, our garden did quite well considering the circumstances. To make the most of this strategy, we timed planting to coincide with a period of high moisture, and we planted everything but the tomatoes from seed because we believed that the transition from a greenhouse to a dry garden might be too much of a shock for transplants to weather. We planted the tomato transplants deep, covering half of the stems, to encourage strong root systems. It seems that the beans, watermelons, and cantaloupes fared the best in the dry weather, whereas the squash experienced some wilting during the longest dry stretches.

All in all, we had an excellent garden year in a beautiful Amelia County setting. Even if you missed this year’s tour, we are sharing our experiences in hopes that they help you along in your own garden pursuits.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Virginia Garden Pest Factsheets

Virginia Vegetable Factsheets

Integrated Pest Management for Vegetable Gardens

Cover Crops

 

 

Meet the Amelia County Extension Demonstration Garden.

Instead of our usual written story, this week we are sharing a video documenting the progress of our 2014 Extension Demonstration Garden in Amelia County. Click the play button to begin watching.

In 2013, the Virginia Cooperative Extension agents in Amelia County created a 1,200 square Demonstration Garden. It was used for a series of summer workshop on topics ranging from food preservation to disease control. The Amelia agents decided to expand the garden in 2014 and continue using it for agriculture, healthy lifestyle, and youth development workshops and events.

Photo highlights from the 2014 garden:

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Snap bean seedlings emerged quickly after germinating in the warm, moist spring soil.

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Herbs like lavender, oregano, fennel, and dill grew in our garden.

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We planted our sweet corn as soon as spring soil temperatures reached the mid-60s.

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Our collards preferred the cooler temperatures of early spring. Collards, like kale, can also grow in a fall garden.

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We grew a handful of tomato varieties including Supersweet 100, Early Girl, Better Boy, Mr Stripey, Amelia, Lemon Boy, and Beefsteak.

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Meet Janet and Dan.

 

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They operate Broadfork Farm in Mosely, where they raise their three children and lots of vegetables. Visitors who step onto the property at this time of year are greeted by bright rows of vivacious greens, carrots, and kohlrabi. It is no surprise that the fall crop is doing so well, considering the hard work Janet Aardema and her husband Dan Gagnon have done to create nutrient-rich soil that supports multiple produce plantings and harvests each year. P1070655 (1024x768)

Broadfork has been in existence for several years and has entered its third year as a full farm business. Many customers are taking advantage of its ability to serve as a “CSA,” or “Community Supported Agriculture” program. CSAs are not incredibly common in the greater Richmond area, but they are becoming more popular. Customers pay in advance for a weekly or monthly subscription to the farm, and in return, they receive bags and boxes of in-season farm goods. The CSA system helps consumers build deeper connections to agriculture, and according to Janet, “Risk can be mitigated well for a diversified farm like ours.” After all, subscribers invest in the farm’s products and therefore also invest in its success. Janet and Dan are working on expanding the CSA program, but they also take their produce to local markets. P1070643 (1024x768)

P1070667 (1024x753)The growing season is not over at the end of the summer. Although tomatoes and peppers are winding down, the farm is host to a plethora of cold-hardy cool-season vegetables including broccoli, radishes, carrots, lettuce, kohlrabi, collards, and more. The farm has plenty of unique crops like frisee, escarole, and microgreens, and this summer Dan and Janet experimented with a tomato grafting project. On the side, the farm helps with programs and field days for the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, an organization for agriculturalists that promotes sustainable practices. Janet is their executive director.

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P1070651 (768x1024)Broadfork Farm relies on research, test data, and sustainability guidelines to govern its farm management decisions. Both Janet and Dan are self-described “soil nerds,” and as such, they rely on soil testing to determine levels of micro and macro nutrients and percentages of organic matter in their fields. Dan spends much of his time studying ways to improve his soil and in turn improve the quality of his products. His ultimate goal is to increase the organic matter on parts of his farm. Why? Organic matter increases the water-holding capacity of the soil, releases plant-available nutrients, and helps form soil aggregates that lead to better soil structure. Soil with good structure is more water-permeable.

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Dan studies the cation exchange capacity of the soil on his farm as a means of making his fertilizer program more efficient. The higher the cation exchange capacity of a soil, or CEC, the more positively-charged ions from elements like calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium the soil can hold, store, and exchange for plants. Clays and soils with high organic matter tend to have high cation exchange capacities, so Dan uses compost and organic materials to build soils with higher CECs. Knowing the traits of his soils allows him to target the areas that need the most fertility help.

P1070616 (1024x768)Produce from the farm is “Certified Naturally Grown,” meaning that it is produced under a specific set of management principles and the farm undergoes auditing in order to ensure that it continues to meet the expectations of the program. Janet believes that the certification has been a helpful marketing tool. Without it, she used to explain the farm’s practices to customers but could not use any special labeling or branding programs. Now that the produce is certified in this program, she can point to a specific, consistent set of guidelines that governs the way the farm grows its produce. The “Certified Naturally Grown” program is quite similar to the nation-wide “Certified Organic” labeling program, but it differs in the fact that it is designed to uniquely suit the needs of small farmers and direct-market producers like Janet and Dan. Large farms that sell to large outlets are better suited for the “Certified Organic” program, although all producers have access to it. P1070662 (909x1024)

P1070624 (1024x716)Broadfork Farm has been successful in providing high-quality foods for their customers and Janet and Dan look forward to the possibility of expanding the CSA portion of their market. They estimate that they have produced enough food to feed one hundred families each year over the past two years. The future holds some additional greenhouses and storage facilities, an increase in acreage, and new adventures in specialty crop production. The family is especially thankful for a chance to serve the needs of the community and work together to turn their passion for local foods into a viable business. P1070663 - Copy (1024x702)Additional Resources for Readers:

Certified Naturally Grown Program Webpage

Virginia Grown Webpage

Vegetable Production Resources and Guides

Broadfork Farm Webpage