I wanted to give y’all a little update on last week’s discussion of cabbage moths and their caterpillars’ never-ending appetite for my cabbages and kale. WASPS HAVE ARRIVED! There are several species of predatory wasps that can help control cabbage moth populations in the garden. Depending on the species of wasp, they may eat the caterpillar to feed to their wasp babies, or they may lay eggs on the caterpillar, then the wasp larvae emerge and consume the caterpillar. This past week, I have noticed quite a few wasps flying around the cabbage patch. Upon closer examination, they were crawling around, looking for and consuming cabbage moth caterpillars. Nature at work! Chris and I have seen fewer caterpillars this week, perhaps due to increased wasp dining, but also perhaps due to the rainy weather, which keeps the moths (actually, they’re really butterflies) from flying around and laying their eggs on my brassica plants (kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, collards). Either way, the caterpillar damage seems to be less at the moment, and I’m glad that I have wasps around the garden helping out!
Today, my mom, dad, and their friend, Ric, came down to the farm to help out. I’ve had a new car canopy sitting in it’s box in my living room for the last couple of weeks, intending to put it up over the area where I wash vegetables, but unable to find the time to actually put the thing together. While I was out picking veggies for Sunday’s market, my parents and Ric put together the canopy and re-arranged the wash station so that I now have everything under the cover of the canopy. This will be so helpful for keeping everything shaded and free from tree debris and rogue bird poo.
Chris and I do most of our vegetable picking in the morning when the plants are cool(er) and moist. Once the veggies heat up, they respire faster, which leads to wilting. We want the vegetables we sell at market to look nice and perky and to last longer in your refrigerator, so it’s imperative to get them out of the field in the morning when their respiration rate is lower. Once they are picked, almost all the veggies get sprayed off by the hose on a wire mesh spray table or dunked in water to remove dirt from the field. My dad helped me construct an elevated stand that holds a bath tub that I can fill with water for cleaning the vegetables. The dirty water is easily drained out of the bottom of the tub, then it gets cleaned and sanitized before the next round of vegetables comes in to be cleaned. Once the vegetables are rinsed, they are organized in plastic totes and placed into our awesome veggie cooler trailer and kept at 39-40 degrees F until they go to market. I have several bottles of water that I freeze before the market, then place inside the totes once we open them at the market. That helps hold the vegetables at a cool temperature inside the totes for the 3-4 hours we’re at the market. Keeping the veggies fresh and clean looking is definitely time and energy consuming, but I think the end result is worth it – several customers have told me how long their Dark Wood Farm vegetables last. Even though Chris, my mom, and I spend a lot of time cleaning the vegetables, I always suggest that you wash again at home. We don’t use any sprays or dangerous chemicals on your veggies, so you don’t need to worry about that. However, an extra rinse with cool water will help remove extra dirt that didn’t come off in the first rinse and help alleviate any wilting that happens during the time between buying the vegetables and getting them in your fridge.
Bugs! A sign that summer is here is the amazing diversity of insects flying around the farm. I’m anti-spraying, so the good, bad, and ugly insects have taken up residence at Dark Wood Farm. So far, I haven’t had to deal with much insect damage on the vegetables aside from flea beetles on my early radish, turnip, and mustard crops and some leaf miner damage to salad ingredients. I was able to mitigate some of the damage from these insects by using fabric row covers over the plants. This time of year, though, the fabric row covers can make the plants and soil too hot, so I’ve quit using them except for over my eggplants. Eggplants like heat, and they are a favorite food for lots of insects, mainly the eggplant flea beetle which turns eggplant leaves into swiss cheese in no time. The eggplants don’t like to be abraded by the fabric, so my dad constructed some wire hoops that Chris and I put over the freshly transplanted eggplants with the help of our workshare friend, Lisa. Now the eggplants are growing safe and sound under their little fabric hoophouse.
Lately, though, I have been wringing my hands as I see a new set of insects emerging. I’ve spotted my first few Colorado Potato beetles, known to defoliate potato leaves, and Japanese beetles, which eat just about every type of plant that I grow. By far, the insect causing me the most concern at the moment is the cabbage moth. This seemingly innocuous looking white butterfly (yes, it’s a butterfly and not a moth even though it’s called a cabbage moth) flits around my field looking to lay its eggs on any member of the brassica family it can find. This includes cabbages, kale, collards, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. The eggs hatch into tiny little green caterpillars that eat their way through the leaves of the plants where they were born before they pupate and emerge as an adult butterfly. If you’ve ever found a little green “worm” on your kale or in a head of broccoli, this is the culprit! I knew I’d have some of these little guys on my brassicas, and given my 50% for humans, 50% for nature philosophy, I planted extra. My thought was, the cabbage moth caterpillars can eat some of the plants, and I’ll just harvest the nice looking, undamaged plants to take to the market.
So far, my “plant extra” philosophy has worked, but now the problem is that the cabbage moth caterpillars are everywhere! Really nice looking kale plants have little caterpillars hanging out on the leaves. Beautiful broccoli heads have little caterpillars hiding inside them. What to do?! I realize that most people don’t enjoy finding insects on their food, so I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I cannot guarantee that the vegetables I’m picking right now are bug-free. Any time I see an insect on my vegetables, I pick it off. I also vigorously rinse my vegetables before they come to market, which removes insect hitchhikers. But the truth is, that if you looked close enough, especially with the help of a microscope, you would probably find some kind of insect on the vegetables that I sell at market. Now, take a deep breath and ask yourself how you feel about that. Does it gross you out? I know I hated finding cabbage moth caterpillars on the kale I would eat from my family garden when I was a little kid. Since then, I’ve changed my mind about finding bugs on my vegetables. I’ve changed my mind because I know that it is impossible to grow totally insect-free vegetables without sprays. Whether it’s chemical sprays used in conventional agriculture, or even “organically accepted” insecticides like Bt (Bacillus thuriniensis) or spinosad, these products were developed to kill insects. While I don’t like some insects that are hanging out on my farm and eating my vegetables, I really like some of the others and don’t want to kill them. I have honeybees, praying mantises, ladybugs, and all kinds of other insects doing wonderful things like making honey, eating “bad” bugs, and pollinating my fruit and vegetable plants. Whether I like these insects or not, they are all part of a larger food web that is alive and robust on my farm. Take one piece of the web out, and there are bound to be unforeseen consequences. Also, what the heck is in those sprays and what do they do to your body if you ingest them? I mean, even the “organic” insecticides are made from bacteria in higher concentrations than you’d ever find in nature or they are some sort of engineered extract from bacteria or fungus. I figure, if I am afraid to put the insecticide directly in my mouth, I better not put it on the food I’m going to put directly in my mouth. The result of not using sprays, however, is that my kale *might* have a cabbage moth caterpillar on it when you buy it at the market. My collard leaves might have a few holes in them where a bug took a bite. Here’s the thing – eating a leaf with a hole in it will not adversely affect your health. Accidentally eating a cabbage moth caterpillar won’t adversely affect your health either. In fact, it’ll give you a little extra protein! The thing is, I don’t know what eating kale with insecticide on it is going to do to your health. I also don’t know what that insecticide will do to the health of the beneficial insects that live on my farm, and all the other creatures that eat those insects. So, I choose not to spray anything and let the bugs work it out among themselves while I keep myself busy inspecting kale leaves and pinching all the little green cabbage moth caterpillars I can find.
In honor of Father’s Day, I want to share with you one of the many projects my dad has been working on for the farm – the refrigerated trailer. When I moved onto the farm in January, I knew I was going to need some sort of refrigeration for the vegetables. The summers here get hot and a lot of the vegetables I am growing need to stay cool (down to around 41F) for up to 24 hours before they go to the farmers market. I looked into buying a used large-sized commercial refrigerator, but I don’t have an obvious place to put it where it can be plugged in. The barn would work well because it’s covered, but it doesn’t have power, so that was a no-go. There’s limited covered space around the house, and I was worried about a refrigerator sitting outside and getting wet from the rain and the snow. With that option out, I immediately thought about walk-in coolers. Lots of farms use them, and the farm where I worked outside of Seattle, Local Roots Farm, even had a walk-in cooler that was powered by an air conditioner instead of a compressor. This is an energy-saving option made possible by a little device called a CoolBot that tricks the air conditioner to run at temperatures lower than normally possible. The only problem is that I am renting the farm and don’t plan to be here forever, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to install a walk-in.
That’s where the refrigerated trailer comes in. While poking around on Craiglist looking for farm equipment, I came across an ad for a “Veggie Trailer.” It was an insulated 6’x12′ trailer that contained an air conditioning unit inside. The guy who had built it had used it to cool vegetables to take to market, but he was getting out of the vegetable growing business and wanted to sell it. Here was an option that worked for me! The trailer could be pulled up by my house where the air conditioner could be plugged in, it was weather proof and water tight, and could travel with me when I move off this farm onto my own property. So, I bought the trailer and my dad and I hauled it home to the farm, and I started using it to store and cool my vegetables overnight before I’d take them to the market. The only problem was that the air conditioner could only cool the trailer down to about 55F at best, and on warm days, it struggled to get below 70F. That didn’t really help much with my veggie cooling issue, so I had to keep everything inside the trailer iced down to keep them cool enough. But what about the CoolBot?! I knew a CoolBot would help solve my problem, but unfortunately, the air conditioning unit inside my trailer wasn’t compatible with the CoolBot. My dad found a used air conditioner that would work with the CoolBot, and this past week, after he retired for the second time, he spent several days installing the new air conditioner, adding extra insulation to the trailer, and hooking up the CoolBot. The final version of my refrigerated veggie trailer is awesome, and it’s now sitting out in the shade under a big sycamore tree next to my house waiting to be put to use. We had to work out some electrical issues over the last few days, but everything is up and running and the CoolBot-powered air conditioner is cooling the inside of the trailer from ambient temperature down to 40 degrees in less than 15 minutes, which is amazing!!! I am so excited to put the trailer to use, and can’t thank my handy dad enough for doing all the hard work, especially since he’s retired (again).
Water has been on my mind lately. Mainly because I was worried that my plants weren’t getting enough of it during the final weeks of May. Until a few days ago, the top few inches of soil in the garden were turning dusty dry and the flow of the creeks running alongside my garden had turned from a gush into a trickle. While neighboring farms were busy irrigating their crops, I was busy doing a rain dance because…full disclosure here…I don’t have an irrigation system set up yet. I have a long to-do list for the farm, and setting up irrigation has been on that to-do list for a long time. I kept shuffling it to the bottom of the list because Mother Nature has been providing consistent rain or thundershowers (or snow) since my first seeds and plant babies went out into the field in March. So instead of looking my irrigation (or lack of irrigation) problem in the eye, I focused on other farm projects. Also, I have to admit, irrigation is a topic that makes my head spin, which is probably why I have procrastinated so long.
To irrigate crops, you need a water source and power to deliver the water to the crops. While I’m lucky that I have creeks bordering three sides of my farm, they don’t always hold water consistently throughout the year, and I don’t have an electric source anywhere near my field, so I need to have an alternative power source to pump water from the creeks. Another disclosure – I would rather not have to water at all. If I can get all of my water in the form of rain, it saves me a lot of time and worry. Plus, plants tend to be better at growing deep, water-seeking roots if you don’t water them too much. If the surface of the soil is consistently wet from regular irrigation, the plants will form shallow roots that stay near the surface and easily dry out when they aren’t irrigated. Normally, here in Kentucky, you can bet on warm rains throughout the summer, but we have experienced drought years, and who knows what will happen this summer, so I’m biting the bullet and buying irrigation equipment in case we have an unusually dry summer. Now I’m tackling the confusing-to-me subjects of water pressure, friction loss, filtration, and the puzzle of putting together pumps, fittings, pipes, hoses, valves, and nozzles. On top of all that, I have struggled to find a local irrigation supply store that carries agricultural irrigation products for small scale growers. There sure do seem to be a lot of lawn irrigation contractors and suppliers out there, but not a lot of options for people growing things other than grass. The nearest agricultural irrigation store I could find was in Lexington. I could try and order everything online, but I really wanted to talk to an expert and see how all those little fittings, hoses, and whoozeewhatsits go together before I purchased them. So, earlier this week after some hot days with no rain, I decided to drive to Lexington and talk to the fine people at Kentucky Irrigation. Now I’m the proud owner of some drip tape, a filter, pressure regulator, and various fittings. I still need to purchase a pump and a large diameter hose or pipes to deliver water from the pump up the field, but all of that can wait a little longer because my rain dance paid off – on Wednesday, we received an inch of rain. As luck might have it, most of it fell during the few hours we have to harvest vegetables for our Wednesday farmers market, but I’m not complaining. The plants are thriving now in moist soil and I get to procrastinate my irrigation problem for a little longer.