Thursday, November 14, 2013

For the Love of Beans and Squash

Frost Tender Cucuzza

This time of the year always makes me a little sad. I have to walk up and down the rows of happily growing crops deciding the fate of each one; saying "thank you" to those who have given us much over the season but also bid farewell to those summer crops I've lovingly tended, coaxed along and protected for months on end, but that will not be long for the farm once the temps dip below freezing. 

I wish I could save them all and let them produce perpetually, but that is just not practical. Not in North Texas anyway.  But alas, it happens every year. I guess it's a little like the tree's green leaves turning their true autumn colors and then dying and falling to the ground. You have to learn to let things go and move on to the next season. 

(Or, you can dig things up out of the ground, pot them, and replant them in the hoop house - like we did with the basil! Sometimes, where there’s a will, there’s a way! Diligence and some TLC can pay off. We should have pesto for Christmas, my birthday and Valentines Day!)

When it comes to weather in the fall, you never can tell for sure what to expect. But by “listening” to your instincts, watching the sky, animals and the calendar, as well as talking amongst veteran farmers, you can usually predict most things at least as well as the official forecasters. Some nights, you can go outside and feel whether or not the air is crisp and clear enough to frost things, but it's good to have several hours heads up from the computers these days. The idea is to trap in the warmth of the sun under the frost cloth, so waiting till it's dark - isn't usually a good idea.

Last night, as I walked through the gardens for the last time re-tucking things here and there, it felt like a killing frost was imminent for sure, and all of the forecasters had long confirmed that an arctic blast was to arrive by dawn. This time, they got the forecast right. And this freeze is right in line with our average first killing frost date of mid November here in USDA hardiness zone 8a. The dogs', barn cat and horses' coats had already begun thickening, the leaves are changing. It was time.

Last year we had a pretty early and unexpected frost that took out some things before their time. It had caught most of North Texas farmers and gardeners off guard. I wasn't alone. That's just one of the ways Nature keeps us in check I think. Dropping from 80F to a frost in a matter of hours; you're probably going to lose a few crops. And we did. Pretty as the frost looks on that chard below, as soon as it thawed out, the plants and the leaves turned to mush. They just didn't have time to harden off before that first frost last year.
Frost Sure Looks Pretty - But Proved to be Lethal This Time

My first year trying to grow fall tomatoes, I actually stumbled upon the way to defy an upcoming freeze by unwittingly following the ways of great Four-Season farmer Eliot Coleman with my double covering experiment. After I had tucked them all in that night, talking with a former classmate and fellow farmer from IL, my last minute plan was validated and that indeed I had done exactly what I should have done to keep them safe! I'm still amazed at how well this worked given I had not yet read up on it to know what I was doing. Beginner's luck! I had actually covered the plants with plastic earlier in the season, trying to heat things up since there had been such a cloudy stretch and they wouldn't ripen. Why I had tucked frost cloth in there at the same time I put plastic over the hoops, must have been some indigenous grower instinct in me, because it was there staring at me as I pondered the fate of those green tomatoes in the face of a deep freeze I feared I lose them to. I’d been trying to get them to ripen for weeks, and the light bulb went off in my head. I pulled that frost cloth up and over those plants under the plastic that night, crossed my fingers, said a prayer and it worked! I had no idea how much difference the double layer would make. I've used that technique once more and had the same results - and it was on a cloudy day, without much solar heat to trap in.

This year, we were warned and prepared but I had so many rows of warm season things still producing, on two properties, it was going to be a monumental task to cover it all, on top of the other pre-freeze preparations that come normally on a farm. I was really glad to have the help of my 2 farm residents and our part time intern this year after usually running around doing it all on my own for the most part. I remember one year calling on a CSA work share member in the neighborhood to come out and help me wrestle frost cloth. People tend to get a better respect for their food once they've experienced something like that.

But even with the help, the list was long and would take time; we'd secure frost cloth over our Thanksgiving winter squash, all 5 rows of them, the trellised beans and still producing cucuzza, and then some summer squash plants, another 5 or so rows. We even had a row with some tomato plants we'd cover that were finally starting to show signs of life - and a handful of tomatoes. Time allowing, we'd dig up our basil and pick okra and melons. Drawing extra water, then disconnecting the water hoses, covering faucets and putting out extra hay for the animals is on the list, too, of course. My Great Pyrenees LGD's don't come in on cold nights, they love it out there. As long as they have a warm pile of hay to snuggle up in and a wind block, they're fine. They seem to live for winter. And Smoke, our part Icelandic ewe, is quite at home in our brief stints with winter weather. I wish I had a video of her running laps around her "yard" the morning of the first freeze! I was cracking up and the dogs thought she'd surely lost her mind. Ah, life on the farm.... 

Running around like a nut in the cold - Smokey, our resident ewe

I started the undertaking of the prep for the freeze on Monday at the satellite farm location, when it was nice, warm and calm out. It's about 30 miles down the road where I am using some land at a retired farmer friend's place, to make up for about an acre on my urban farm that is currently over-seeded with cover crops for the winter, in order to build precious organic matter. 

The farm owner asked me, somewhat sheepishly, "Are we still going to have beans after Tuesday?" I assured her I was going to do whatever I could to be sure she got some of those yummy green beans she loved so much. She can find green beans on the vine when no one else can, she claims. She'd already sampled a few and was looking forward to picking a pot-full soon! I hated to let her down, and I would have our CSA work share member who works that farm, check on things Tuesday afternoon after the front was to have blown through with high winds, just to be sure everything stayed pinned down. (All was well she reported - so it looks like beans should be on the menu next week. My friend is thrilled.) 

Our farm intern met me back at our urban location later Monday afternoon, and we got most everything else covered up just as the sun started to set. We took a quick dinner break and we finished up the covering process in the dark. It was a bit of a challenge, especially when I lost my phone in the rambles of squash vines, but it was still fairly warm out. We worked by the light of the moon and clear sky, pooped as 10PM approached, but, we agreed it was better to hit the hay exhausted, than to fight the frost cloth and plastic in the morning when there was rain, wind and the cold front predicted to blow in. "I come out here to work!", he said. And work we did. We got it all tucked in and pinned down. We thought.  

But early Tuesday morning the cold front had blown through with strong winds and whipped off much of our work on the trellis and a few rows came a bit loose due to wet soils not holding the pins in very well. We had to pull an “all hands on deck” shift to get things back under control to try to keep the squash and beans from shivering later that night. (Squash and beans do shiver, you know.) Our farm residents rolled up their sleeves and we all got to work.

This year is the first year we’ve had to cover an actively growing trellis, so none of us was exactly sure how we were going to tackle it, but we devised an idea and collectively, we managed to execute the vision. So between the 4 of us, we re-secured the flapping plastic, now in 35 mph wind gusts, (but thankfully no rain), and re-pinned frost cloth that had whipped off of the sprawling winter squash vines that were bursting at the seams of the cloth's edges. We were determined to keep that squash warm!  

Then, we did what any good farmer does – we threw dirt on it! To help hold the edges in place, we buried them with shovels full of sand. What fun it is to clear that off, but we had little choice in the face of time and wind.
Our Big Trellis Experiment - Fail
The rest of the tasks were completed before dark that night and I tucked in the animals, went inside and made some hot cocoa, cracked open a new farming book and hoped for the best. Our intern got the rest of his time off this week as there wouldn’t be much to do with everything covered for two days. Baking was on my agenda. The next morning, on Thursday, as soon as it got above freezing, (they were predicting 30F for a low and we hit 31), I’d be peeling off the plastic and shade cloth to free everything for the 80F we're expecting on Sunday. Got to love North Texas weather! 

Win some and lose some. 
I’m happy to report that everything we did, held in place overnight when it really counted; we had hit 28F briefly, but had held steady at 29F for about an hour or so in the wee hours on Wednesday morning and that's a killing frost for sure. Sadly, the plants under the trellis were not sufficiently protected though, and most of the leaves of the beans and cucuzza squash burned and many of the vines turned to mush. A few plants may have made it, but most did not. The snow peas, however, are thriving under there on the same trellis; we’ll plant more of them to enjoy this spring. And, we go back to the drawing board on trellis freeze protection for beans. I already have an idea for how to do it next year.....

There were lots of blooms on those bean vines and equally as many little cucuzza squash coming on so I'm really sad we lost them as we'd have had a bumper crop when it all came in. The winter squash made it though, and they are oh so close to being ready. Big red warty thing, buttercup and spaghetti squash are all looking good. Plus, a few rows of summer squash vines are fine and producing, too. So, we're in good shape, just not the abundance we'd hoped for. I hope Wendy's beans made it out at the country farm. I'll find out later when the report comes in.

Shorter autumn days mean things take longer than the “days to harvest” listed on seed packets, but we're shooting for 2 more weeks till they're all ready, which is right on time for what we planned - Thanksgiving dinner. And with any luck, we may have some summer squash, cucumbers for pickling and a stray tomato or two for December, too.

Here in north Texas we are able to start our fall season with another round of warm season crops. But it's always a risk and you can’t count on any of them after Halloween, unless you've got a way to protect them. Coming out of the grasshopper invasion from Mars out in the country this summer, we had plenty of frost cloth to do the job - a lot of it was just at the wrong farm and had to be rolled up and moved - and of course it was wet and heavy. But even though we've got it all in place now, hopefully, we won’t get another frost for several more weeks, and that by then, the rest of our surviving summer crops will finally be done producing so we won’t have to go through all of those antics again. Some years, it seems like it’s more challenging to farm in the winter than in the summer with covering and uncovering for weather changes. But most of the true winter crops don't need to be covered unless it's going to get really, really cold for a long time. And most years, that doesn’t happen but about 2 times all winter, if that. Thankfully. 

Because wrestling with a 100' x 12' frost cloth and equally sized piece of plastic in the wind, is about like trying to hang onto the Jolly Green Giant's parachute! And it seems like it's always windy the day before the freeze when you're trying to secure everything. It’s only calm when the cold settles in – and by then, it’s too late. 

I hope you were able to protect your gardens/farms, too. Now, go git yer hands in the dirt! There’s still lots of time left to plant things for winter and early spring.


Eat Your Food - Naturally!