All posts by Irena

Julia’s Georgia farm has over 100 species

On our way back from the Georgia Organics conference in mid-February, Ken and I stopped to visit Julia Asherman’s impressively diverse farm in Jeffersonville, Georgia.  (Then we had to catch up on office work before finding the time to write this post!) At this time of year, much of the farm is in cover crops, and most of the action is in her high tunnels.

IH iphone (491) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsd

Rag & Frass Farm” was named in deliberate contrast with farm names that sound overly romantic or “like gated communities.” But one of Julia’s main sources of income about as romantic as it comes: selling flowers for weddings.

IH iphone (468) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsd

She and her seasonal apprentices also sell common types of vegetables, and various crops that are hard to find fresh or local.  They sell through her local farmers’ market, and through a farmers’ cooperative, and some years through a CSA.  She has a visions of a farm stand and a pick-your-own section of the farm with blueberries and tea.

IH iphone (495) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsdJulia brought out a bottle of dark brown syrup from sugar cane she’d planted the year before, and a tan bottle of vinegar made from the syrup, and we each tasted both.  Last year she’d planted the canes in a 200-foot row and took the harvest to a neighbor who had an old cane press, and gotten 54 bottles of syrup and a few bottles of vinegar.  I would have liked to buy a bottle of syrup, but she only had one left; the rest had sold at her farmers’ market for $15 each.

IH iphone (498) on Rag and Frass Farm croppedBetween turmeric, ginger, (both shown at right), sugar cane, and strawberry “daughters,” Julia has been doing a lot of vegetative plant propagation.

She’s also been experimenting with seed-saving for years, IH iphone (481) looking at Alabama Blue collards on Rag and Frass Farm prcsdand she and Ira had talked some about seed growing at previous farm conferences.  Our visit marked her first transfer of seed to a seed company.  We hadn’t been expecting it, and rarely do we buy seed from farmers we haven’t already contracted with.  But we saw that she had a blue landrace collard growing in her high tunnel, confirmed that it was Alabama Blue, and mentioned that having a collard seed crop in a greenhouse would increase the germination rate of the harvested seeds by keeping rain off the seeds as they dry on the plants. With seed crops in the collard family in the moist Southeast, the main challenge is to get the seed to mature without getting too wet.  Julia had previously harvested 2 pounds of Alabama Blue collard seed that she didn’t have a plan for.  We brought the jar back to our farm for germination testing.

We looked together at the Southern Exposure list of seed crops for 2017, and chose several that Julia will grow for us, including Red Foliated White cotton (with permission from her local extension agent),  Statice, Old Fashioned Mix Nicotiana, Heavenly Blue morning glory, and a yet-to-be-determined cosmos.

Julia has been growing a Jungle Striped Peanut for the past couple of years.  We ate a few, found them tasty, and brought home some seeds to try out in our garden.  She sells bundles of freshly dug peanut plants with the pods still on them, and this fall she’ll probably also sell some to us as a seed crop.

The day before we visited, Julia’s heritage breed Pineywoods Longhorn cow had given birth to a calf.

Julia is about to close, in the, next few weeks, on her 54-acre parcel, including a former motel and the 3 acres she’s and her apprentices have been cultivating for the past 4 years. You can read more about her farm on her website, http://www.ragandfrassfarm.com.

IH iphone (493) on Rag and Frass Farm prcsd

 

Austrian Winter Peas

May2016 (176) flowering Austrian Winter Peas prcsd

Last fall I scattered Austrian Winter Pea seeds over several of the small beds in the herb garden next to our office, and lightly raked them in.  For the past couple of weeks, every other day or so I pinch off a few of their small shoots as I walk from the house to the office and back.  Like many children, I relish the ability to eat vegetables right in the garden, within a few moments of picking them.  At this time of year, I cherish the diversity Austrian Winter Peas add to the range of very fresh food I can eat.Feb2017 (18) Penny eats Austrian Winter Peas prcsd


Yesterday I brought some pea shoots to Penny and her mother Scarlet, and then I brought Penny and Scarlet to the Austrian Winter Peas.  Penny devoured them, and Scarlet said that one of her favorite memories of her own childhood was of eating peas and pea shoots in her neighbor’s garden in British Columbia.

In a few weeks I’ll be frequently snipping off a bowlful at a time of large, lush shoots, adding them to salads and stir-fries, as well as snacking on them.

May2016 (80) Austrian Winter Peas prcsd

Like other legumes, these peas form relationships with rhizobial bacteria in the soil that pull nitrogen out of the air and make it available both to the pea plants themselves, and to the next crop we plant in these beds.  Austrian Winter Peas are more frequently planted as a cover crop than for eating.  Our half-pound package is appropriate as a cover crop for small gardens, and as food crop for gardens, homesteads, and other small farms.  For maximum nitrogen fixation, we could decide to till these peas under shortly after they start to flower.  Or, we could leave them a little longer to enjoy the two-tone purple edible flowers.

May2016 (184) flowering Austrian Winter Peas prcsdwinter peas in rye prcsdI wish I was a better record-keeper and could tell you what day I planted this small crop of Austrian Peas.  The best time is 4-6 weeks before your first fall frost, but I planted well past that date.  Even planting them now would yield some benefit in our climate, and in colder parts of the country, Austrian Winter Peas are generally spring-planted as soon as the soil can be worked.  They can take lower temperatures than other peas, even a little below 0°F for short periods, but if you plant them in fall in zone 7 or colder, you might want to mix the seed with rye to shelter the pea plants through the winter.

Thinking like a plant

Books-Vegetable gardening in the Southeast-smallGarden Primer bookBarbara Damrosch states, early in her 633-page Garden Primer book, that “Good gardening is very simple, really.  You just have to learn to think like a plant.”

One of the challenges of learning to think like a plant is that not all plants think alike.

When you’re wondering how best to take care of a particular crop, the first question you’ll ask yourself might be “Where can I find good instructions?”  You might, for example, start by looking at the cultural notes in our catalog, or by looking in the “Edibles A to Z” section of Ira Wallace’s book Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast, or Barbara’s Garden Primer.

Another question to ask yourself is, “What do I know about the needs and habits of this plant’s relatives?”  Plants tend to be similar to their relatives in terms of the conditions they need for germination or fruit set, the relationships they form with soil microbes, the strategies they use to spread their seed, and many other factors.

For example, if you know that luffas are related to pumpkins and cucumbers, you can guess that growing luffas will be more similar to growing pumpkins or cucumbers than to growing tomatoes.

photos mid fall 2011 177 luffa stages
Left to right, the progression of luffas from flower bud to mature fruit: buds, flower, baby fruit with spent petals still attached, edible young fruits, intermediate-maturity fruits, and mature fruits for retting and use as sponges.

Luffas (also called loofahs), like most crops in the squash (cucurbit) family:

  • prefer dryer soil than most other plants, particularly while seeds are germinating
  • have delicate root systems, but can be transplanted with care
  • can sprawl or climb
  • use tendrils to cling to surrounding plants or structures
  • have flowers that are very attractive to bees
  • have separate male flowers and female flowers on androgynous plants
  • are easily killed by frost

If I was sending a soil test to a lab and wanted a recommendation on whether to amend the soil before planting luffas, I’d check the box of another crop in their family (assuming luffas aren’t on the list).  If I was worried that an insect might be attacking my luffa crop, I’d run through a mental list of the insects that I’ve known to attack other crops in its family. If I wanted to make a guess at which nutrients are abundant in luffas (when picked small for eating), I’d start by looking up which nutrients are abundant in other cucurbits that are also harvested before the seeds mature, like cucumbers or summer squash.  If I wanted to  harvest pure, market-worthy seeds from one variety of luffa, I’d plant it at least 1/2 mile from any other varieties of the same species of luffa, based on the similar isolation distances recommended for harvesting reliably pure seeds of other cucurbits.

However, any plant will have some significant differences from its relatives.  For example, most cucurbits set their seeds in a wet environment, but luffas set their seed in a dry environment.  Thus the techniques we use to clean luffa seeds are very different from those we use for most seeds in the cucurbit family.

It might be tempting to focus your gardening efforts on one family, grow lots of its members, and really learn how they think.  But diversity of plant families in your garden is one aspect of agrobiodiversity, and will help ensure that the bugs or diseases that like one of your crops won’t like too many of your crops.  It’s also important to rotate your crops, and like many farmers and gardeners, we organize our crop rotation according to plant family.

For an easy way to learn which plants are in which families, take a look at our illustrated list of the predominant plant families in American gardens.

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