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
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
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
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, winter.
Meantime, we’ll enjoy the lazy days of summer while we can.