Originally Posted on August 03, 2013
The heat wave has backed off a bit for us in Chico, Calif. We're gardening in the comfortable low 90s for a change. That means we are out with our wheel hoes in the morning and evening. We're weeding our paths and still working on our major English Ivy removal project. Removing the ivy is opening up more ground, so we're also doing a little broadforking to prepare for planting some fall crops where the ivy once grew. What an improvement that will be! We'd rather grow food for us, rather than invasive plants.
In this issue we share tips about growing melons on a trellis, drying tomatoes in the sun, and planting cover crops.
Growing Melons (and other cucurbits) on a Trellis
Melon plants can take up quite a bit of room in the garden, sprawling their way over pathways and into neighboring beds. We find that growing melons is such a treat, for when that first ripe melon is ready for picking, at just the right time, we cannot resist but eat the sweet offering. And so, even in our small garden our melon does not have to take over the whole garden because we are growing it a trellis.
We selected a melon that, when mature, are only approximately three pounds. Small melons grown on trellises will still need some support as the fruits grow heavier, and that can be provided with a sling of old t-shirt material or the like. We're growing a French variety called Noir de Carmes, which is a small, flavorful cantaloupe melon. Our melon is happily climbing up a trellis, and has set several fruits in various places along the trellis.
Our melons are still small, and we're monitoring their progress to know just the right time to install the supports. When the weight of the fruit starts to pull the vines down, we'll know it is time to tie them up. We look forward to harvesting the sweet, small melons and will likely devour them soon afterwards.
Cucumbers, gourds, and other cucurbits take well to trellising too. One year we had a pumpkin plant that took to climbing nearby trees, and we were able to support a few of those pumpkins until they turned the beautiful orange they do when ripe.
Growing melons and squash on trellises keeps the fruit off the ground, and makes for easier harvest. Butternut squash can be grown this way, and those little beauties make wonderful summer squash when harvested young, making it a great dual purpose plant. Be sure to leave squash to mature for winter storage. Roasted butternut squash is delicious in the middle of winter.
Tips for Using the Hiller Attachment
We've heard some feedback from some of our customers who own the hiller attachment for the Valley Oak wheel hoe. They've been out there using it to hill crops and a few people have reported that when the hiller is positioned forward on the toolbar (closest to the wheel) it works much better for them than when positioned toward the back of the toolbar. When we field tested the hiller it worked well for us in the back position.
So be sure to try both options to see what works for you. We hope that helps you get out there to do some successful hilling!
The crops are in and the weather is warm (or hot) and that means we're irrigating. We need to irrigate our crops, and that also means we irrigate our weeds. Farmers who grow in nice long rows will be hoeing the paths and up to the crops quite frequently this time of year.
Depending on row spacing, we like to use a 10" hoe blade attachment on our Valley Oak wheel hoe, to rip through weeds quickly. The 10" works 25% more ground than the standard 8" blade, and is still nimble enough to get around into some tight spots.
Drying Tomatoes and Peaches in the Sun
Our tomato and peach harvest this year has been so copious, that even giving away fruit, and eating our fill, has left us with so many tomatoes and peaches. In our hot, dry summer days we use a solar powered food dryer to turn our bounty into something we can enjoy into the winter. We built a solar powered food dryer a few years back, and have dried apricots, tomatoes, and peaches in it.
Our food dryer is a wooden box with window screen mesh covered sides and doors. We used weather stripping to keep the doors bug proof. Our trays are food-grade stainless steel with wood frames that slide into and out of the box. We can fit about eight trays in our food dryer, and when it is being used, it sits out on a table in the sun.
We sliced our peaches and tomatoes into quarter-inch thick sections and placed them on the trays, with space between the pieces. Every day we check our slices to get them out before they dry too much and to check for any spoilage (which can sometimes happen with cooler nights).
We found the large capacity to be far superior to other electric powered dryers we tried in the past (one of which melted on our kitchen counter when we were in the middle of drying tomatoes with it).
It's true, we've written about planning and planting fall gardens for several issues. That's because, though we bask in the warm glow of summer, the window of time for getting seeds planted in the garden is closing as the days grow shorter.
Now is the time to take advantage of the warmth to help your plants get off to a good strong start. With healthy growth at their beginning, plants will be able to adapt to the changing sun and weather cycles with ease. Lettuce, carrots, Asian greens, cabbage, broccoli, and peas can all be planted in August in our Chico climate.
Growing Cover Crops
A bare spot in the garden can be quickly filled with a fast growing cover crop (buckwheat is a good one for hot weather). We were left with a bare spot near the chicken coop when we had to move a few medium-sized fig trees out of harm's way (gophers were eating their roots). We wanted to put in a cover crop, but the chickens make heavy traffic in that area, and they'd eat up most cover crops, especially grasses and clovers.
We've had good luck with bell beans though. The chickens in our garden do not eat the plants. We had some saved seed from a prior cover crop (we let part of the crop go to seed so we wouldn't have to purchase more seed). Once the chickens had the fun of scratching in the freshly dug soil, we scattered the bell beans on the worked ground, and then scattered some litter from the chicken coop (a mix of straw, wood shavings, and chicken manure).
The chickens dutifully came along to scratch through all the litter, spreading it around and incorporating some of it into the soil along with the seeds we'd put down. We didn't worry too much about the fact that the chicken manure was uncomposted, as we aren't growing the crop for food, and also the straw and wood shavings will help bind up a bit of the nitrogen in their manure.
With the warm weather we hope to have a good start on a nice stand of bell beans. They'll help hold the soil, and create a lovely patch of green near the chicken coop through the fall and winter. The flowers attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs (or maybe it is the aphids that attract the ladybugs) and bees. They'll fix nitrogen in the soil (they need to be cut just at flowering for the nitrogen to go to the soil). In our case we want them to absorb any excess nitrogen from the chicken traffic, so that patch of bell beans will be grown for seed. Letting beans go to mature seed draws nitrogen out of the soil.
In our small, fenced keyhole garden, a wider variety of cover crops will be sown. We still have tomatoes going strong, right now, and a nice stand of foxtail millet (the seed heads are for the chickens). We also have cucumbers, some chard, and a few climbing beans in there.
While all that is growing, we've sown daikon seeds for a fall cover crop. Daikon are dynamic mineral accumulators, have a very long root, and add a great amount of organic matter to the soil if left to decompose in the ground. We like to harvest a few to eat, but we leave most the large roots in the ground to help break up soil. Daikon is an especially useful cover crop in clay soil for just that reason.
We're also going to plant a grass and clover mix in the keyhole garden, along with some greens for winter. Arugula, broccoli, chard, and a few Asian greens. By the time they and the daikon are well established, the summer crops will be finished, leaving a nice little green garden with leaves for salads mixed in with the grass and clover. We like to have some areas with numerous plants growing together, in a kind of tangle, to create biodiversity in plant, insect, and soil microbe populations.
Once the springtime comes, we'll let the chickens into the keyhole garden for a few days, to eat the grass, clover, and everything else they wish. They'll work the soil up, remove weeds, deposit small amounts fertilizer, and help get the area cleared for working over with the broadfork, and the planting of next year's summer crops. Such is the cycle of gardening.
Until next time, we wish you a great gardening and farming season!