So...What's Working or Not?
Now is a great time to take stock of what worked and what to change. This week we're going to deconstruct a few issues you may have seen with some crops this summer. Be sure to keep a log of what happens in your garden so you can make adjustments each year and not make the same mistakes twice! A small journal or word document works great.
We'll also cover seed saving and share some yummy recipes. Let's get to it!
Onions and daylight
Did your onions turn out small? You may have planted them too late. In New England, we grow long-day onions that need 14-16 hours of light (sunrise to sunset) during the peak of their growing cycle to form large bulbs. They are triggered to mature when daylight starts decreasing in late June, so we want the plants to be well developed by then.
By mid-August, you’ll notice their tops falling over. You may think they need water or more fertilizer - but no! The keeling over is a sign, triggered by the shortening of the day length, that they will soon be ready to harvest.
So, the key to a larger bulb size is:
Getting your onion plants or sets in the ground very early in the season (late April or early May, once the soil has warmed to 40 degrees on Cape Cod). This lets them grow strong greens in June that will feed the bulbs come July when they are triggered to mature.
Choosing the right variety. Try Patterson for a large yellow onion or Redwing for a nice red onion that also stores well.
Learn more about choosing the right onions for your day-length here.
Avoiding Early Tomato Blight
You may notice the lower leaves on your tomatoes are turning yellow and then brown, and not for lack of water. This disease is called early tomato blight, which like all blights, is a fungus that lives for years in the soil. We talked about similar blights that affect potatoes last month.
Even if tomato blight is in your soil, the disease is manageable if you respond proactively:
Don’t crowd plants – allow for good air circulations so dew and rain can easily dry from the leaves.
Mulch below the plants so the rain-drops and your watering don’t splash soil onto the plants (remember the soil is where the blight lives). Keep those lower leaves clean.
Continually remove all stems and foliage below the remaining fruit. The plant doesn’t need these to grow or ripen the fruit above. Again, good air circulation is key and removing lower leaves will help with this too.
Plant varieties that are resistant to early blight such as -‘Early Cascade’, ‘Floramerica’, ‘Jetstar’, ‘Manlucie’, ‘Supersonic’, and ‘Surecrop’.
Spray with compost tea every week or two. The organisms in the tea will fight the blight.
As with all blights, whatever damaged foliage you remove during summer and fall clean up should be bagged and thrown away, since composting them can incubate and spread the disease.
To learn more about blights, here is a short video.
Managing Prolific Squash Plants
We are in love with winter squash! We grow a lot to store in our root cellar and cook with all winter. But we planted ours in an open area, and before long we couldn’t even see where the stems came out of the ground. Because of this, we had to water with a sprinkler, which can (and probably will) cause the plants to be affected by powdery mildew. Also, to move through the patch we risk stepping on stems, fruits, etc.
A solution is to construct a squash tunnel ( see above photo) to get vines and fruit off the ground. Seeds can be planted along the edge of the structure and trained to grow up the lattice when young. The base of the plants are exposed for easy watering and fertilizing, and air circulates nicely to keep leaves dry and mildew free.
You can use structures like this for any plants that climb:
Here is a video that shows how to use this vertical growing method.
Curious about saving some seeds this year? You're not alone! Check out the Cape Cod Seed Cooperative. Save what grew the best (or tasted the best) and take control of where your seeds come from!
Here are a few seeds we find easiest to save:
Kale is a great choice. You can harvest the greens all season long and leave the plant in the ground through the winter. In spring, the plants will usually start greening up and you can continue to harvest greens. The around April the plants will begin to flower and eventually produces so you can harvest and plant again!
Here’s a video to show you how simple it is.
Dill will often go to seed a few months after you plant it. When it's young and the ferns are fresh, continue to harvest them. As the plant elongates it will send up flowers and then the seeds will form. Let the seeds dry on the plant to an olive-brown color, then harvest to use in making dill pickles, etc.
Do you have some heirloom tomatoes you want to grow again? When cutting into a ripe tomato to eat, scoop seeds into a small jar and fill it with water, then set the jar in a warm spot to ferment for 3-4 days. The good seeds will drop to the bottom, and the non-viable seeds will float. Pour off the water and bad seeds, rinse the rest in a strainer until clean, and spread them out to dry in a warm, well-ventilated area on a plate or tray (not paper towels which will stick to your seeds). When the seeds easily break in two, they are ready to store.
Here is a video showing how simple it is.
Most flowers are very easy to save seed from. Just wait till the petals have fallen and the seed head is dry and slightly brittle. Have a container ready to collect the seed heads.
Listen to this 1-minute video to see how easy it is to save flower seeds.
Pumpkins and winter squash are easy to save seeds from. Try it this fall! Select the best of the crop, scoop out the seeds and wash them thoroughly in a colander to rinse off all the gelatinous material and strings. Spread the seeds on a baking sheet and let them dry somewhere with lots of air-flow and no direct sunlight. Stir them every day or so for even drying. It may take a few weeks depending on the weather and moisture levels. Once you package them you don’t want any mold to form because it will ruin the seeds.
How should you store seeds once they’re dried?
Use whatever envelopes or containers you want, as long as the seeds stay COOL, DRY, and AWAY FROM LIGHT! We store ours in paper envelopes in the fridge, but other strategies may work for you. Check out this video for a bit more explanation.
There is one type of seed not worth saving - hybrid seeds (often labeled as “hybrid” or “F1” on the store-bought package). What’s a hybrid seed? It’s a seed that comes from intentionally cross-breeding, or “hybridizing” two parent plants with desirable traits. For example, breeders may cross a tomato that tastes great but looks lumpy with another that tastes ok but looks beautiful. If the genetics are right, the resulting hybrid seeds will grow a delicious, beautifully looking tomato.
However, after the first generation of hybrid plants ( or “F1”), it’s possible for undesirable traits to reappear in the next generations due to factors of chance and genetic dominance. So, if you save seeds from that F1 hybrid tomato above, they may grow a lumpy, tasteless tomato - not what we want! If you’re intrigued by the science of seed saving and selective breeding, check out this video on hybrid seeds.
The main takeaway is don’t save hybrid seeds, since you may not be happy with the results.