August 17, 2004: Spring this year rolled
easily, almost unnoticeably into summer on Pheasant Hill Farm.
Nature had presented us with what must be understood as something
completely unprecedented: Perfection. I say unprecedented
because we are, after all, farmers. This is our business.
And it is a tough one. We are “both slaves and tyrants
to the land.” So there’s always something for
us to complain about. And nothing is ever good enough. Except
this Spring. Like I said: Perfection. When rain was needed,
some hand magically turned the water on. For just long enough.
And in between, the heat seemed to wait patiently, fill the
earth to the brim at midday, and then fall quietly away.
Perfection. Absolutely devastating perfection. I had moved
to Brooklyn, N.Y., had gone back to school. Again. So I was
part-time help on my parents’ farm 100 miles to the
west. And there were a million things requiring the full attention
of my folks going on off the farm this spring. After
months of Township Planning Commission Meetings, where lawyers
and engineers butted heads with the bureaucrats, my folks
(George and Melanie) had succeeded in saving our farm from
ruin at the hands of developers next door. (But that’s
another story, for another
time.) Needless to say we’d scaled back operations,
so, in our approach to the growing season already upon us,
we did something I don’t know if we’ve ever done
before, and decided just to go with it.
It was two weeks before our first market on June 13. We were
all already a little tired. Trying to control circumstances
seemingly beyond your control will do that to you. In the
middle of untangling a 30- by 100-foot piece of shade cloth
to cover one of the greenhouses, I asked myself, “Why
am I doing this?” And by way of an answer, I didn’t.
All of a sudden this year, it didn’t make much sense
to me to try to grow salad mix in a shaded greenhouse over
the summer. I’m familiar with the particulars and complications
of such an endeavor (believe me, we’ve tried it all
... see The
A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part I and Part
II), and they are too numerous to mention. Which is not
to say, as has one of our neighbors, that “You can’t
grow lettuce in Pennsylvania in the summer.” You can.
In the summer, it’s simply more reasonable to grow what
naturally grows well in the humid heat of the summer season.
Especially in the greenhouse.
Basil loves the heat and doesn’t need much water. Inside
the hoophouse, we don’t have to fool around with Reemay,
under which basil outdoors finds protection from the bugs,
but also often bolts, burns, and develops downy rot. We transplanted,
rather than direct seeded it, in mid-May. Starting with the
proper spacing (which is on about 8-inch
centers) a weekly harvest of the terminal buds has both kept
the plants from bolting and forced them into hearty bushes
that will produce all the way through the season. We clip
our basil in the cool of morning the day of market and bag
it for sale. We do not refrigerate it. It’s always been
a struggle to get basil to market in good condition, and believe
me, we’ve tried everything. This summer, the simple
approach has given us the best results we’ve ever had.
The first planting of our favorite variety, Suyo Long, has
been yielding about four bushels each week for the past month-and-a-half
from roughly 100 square feet of greenhouse space. By either
transplanting or direct seeding about six plants around the
base of our 5-foot welded wire “tomato cages,”
through which we lay two lines of drip tape (cukes need the
water), we save space and receive a greater quantity and superior
quality yield. It is somewhat difficult picking through the
jungle of vegetation clinging to the cages, but growing up
off the ground as they are, we’ve seen less insect damage
and zero rot in our first planting. The second planting is
just coming on, and should take us through August and September.
Suyo Long is a 61-day traditional, long-fruited variety from
China, according to the Johnny’s catalog (www.johnnyseeds.com).
“Best cucumber in the world!” my Dad always tells
customers at market. “That’s why, most year’s
it’s the only cucumber we grow. It’s burpless,
almost seedless. No matter how big it gets, what shape or
color, it is never bitter. Always juicy, sweet and tasty.
We always leave the skin on.”
Dad’s not kidding. We’ve actually had customers
walk around the market eating chilled Suyo Longs like popsicles
on a hot summer day, and come back for more before they leave.
I have, in years past, had great success with growing eggplant
in the greenhouse. Another lover of the heat, it produces
exceptionally well indoors. However, the plants are somewhat
unruly. There’s no easy way to check and contain their
growth, so I prefer to leave them outside in black plastic
under Reemay. (Just check them periodically after planting,
and remove the Reemay when you see blossoms.)
In the last week we’ve had about 14 inches of rain.
(So much for Perfection.) I was talking to another farmer
at market a few days ago, and he said nearly all his tomatoes
had fallen to some sort of blight after the first 10 inches
of that rain came in two days. “How are yours doing?”
he asked. I felt somewhat guilty when I said, “They’re
fine. They’re all inside.” I had, in fact, just
cropped-off a row of Early Cascade plants at a healthy height
of nearly nine feet. You have to put a bit of time into pruning
and training the vines up strings tied to the peak of the
greenhouse frame (a technique I picked up from a hydroponic
tomato grower in Maine that has translated quite well to my
high-tunnels), but if putting in that time saves you from
blight, blossom-end rot, and even splitting (which it does),
it’s certainly worth it. The pruning also forces larger
fruit, making for positively monstrous heirlooms, of which
Brandywine is my favorite variety inside.)
Cherries make a god-awful mess, and the pruning and training
which works so well for larger tomatoes is generally counter-productive
for the these little guys. I did, however, plant, and would
highly recommend Juliet for indoor growing. A red, oblong
cherry-type, Juliet has a firm texture, good flavor, and keeps
well. It appears to resist splitting to the bitter end, and
doesn’t drop fruit like many cherries do. With a modified
“basket-weave” trellis that incorporates tomato
cages and stakes, I’ve been able to keep the plants
fairly well contained.
Blossom-end rot has always been our biggest problem with peppers.
I’m told it’s the dramatic inconsistencies in
soil moisture, among other things. But inside we have no such
problem. The plants have shot up and set a beautiful array
of spotless peppers so heavy the plants have to be staked.
The plants of a variety we grew from saved seed are labeled
simply “Big, Red” now stand about 4.5 feet tall
with peppers the size of softballs coloring-up.
And that’s it. If you can just let it be. It’s
that simple, really. Working with, rather than against, the
onset of another summer on the farm, we’ve made our
lives a little more enjoyable, if not easier. The lettuce,
what there is of it, is outside this summer, in a few well-drained
beds that lie in shade for a good part of the day. Of course,
in another month we’ll have to begin making the transition
in the greenhouses from summer into fall and, ultimately,
Meantime, we’ll enjoy the lazy days of summer while