So it’s midsummer, the time around summer solstice, where most of us have planted our summer crops and we’re eagerly awaiting the first tastes of summer: tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and eggplant. For us here, we’ve been enjoying beets, broccoli, beans, herbs, peas, carrots, fennel, fava beans and kale for some time now but our eyes are on the prize: our fruit laden tomato plants. After growing, freezing, and canning our own tomatoes we vowed never to eat a tomato out of season and it’s been 6 months now since our last fresh tomato. Sungolds are the first of our tomatoes starting to ripen and we hover around that plant dreaming of meals where we can showcase these little orange jewels. But there’s a bit of fear lurking around every time we check on our tomatoes. It’s a little PTSD from last year’s blight epidemic in the northeast. I remember the day: July 11th, 2009. We had the most healthy looking fruit-full tomato plants and the heirlooms with their gigantic beauties were starting their transition from green to yellow and red. We knew we’d have many hundreds of pounds of tomatoes that we’d hope to bring to the market. And then it struck, signs of blight in one area of the farm quickly took down 100 of our 120 tomato plants. We frantically pruned, sprayed the plants with biodynamic equisetum prep, used anything in our means necessary, except fungicides of course, to keep the plants alive and hope that the weather would turn hot and dry which it never did. Thankfully, we had a great biodiversity of other fruits and we learned to be happy with the 240 lbs we were able to salvage.
This time it’s different. We have 44 tomato plants instead of the 120 we planted last year. It is recommended that you do not plant on blight-infested areas for 3 years but since we have such a small operation, that wouldn’t be possible for us. We decided to limit our tomatoes in the main growing area that was affected and use only highly blight resistant tomatoes like Mountain Magic and Plum Regal and we’d grow our non-resistant heirlooms in the greenhouse and in a small area that was not affected last year. But it’s also different this time because we're using nutrient dense techniques to increase soil nutrients through drenches and foliar sprays to ensure that the plant is strong enough to resist disease. This is an absolute corollary to ensuring human health by preventative measures like proper nutrition, exercise and stress management and ultimately a strong immune system to resist diseases like cancer.
We took part in the 3rd series of ND growing with Dan Kittredge at Udderly Wool Acres in Glastonbury CT. This time it was packed with extremely practical information and field demonstrations. We were ready to get out of the classroom and get our hands dirty.
For crops to have access to nutrients needed for optimal growth the soil needs to have the proper electrical charge. For high brix fruit you need sufficient energy in the soil. You can measure the soil conductivity with a meter and this is helpful to discern whether or not there is an imbalance in the soil that needs to be addressed. This is done weekly throughout the season (ideally in the early AM) but it’s most important to do this at transplant time. Have you ever transplanted something and it sat there for eternity without growing? I have and it drives me crazy. If there is low conductivity, it’s a good indicator that there is insufficient nutrition for crops. You want to see a level of 200 in the spring and 600 when the plant is filled with fruit. Looking back at last years blight epidemic, there was much less sun which meant less photosynthesis, less sugar feeding the biological life in the soil, and further the constant rain leeched out the soil electrolytes. The high water table then decreased oxygen which asphyxiated the soil biology. Dan tested his parents (prominent NOFA farmers) soil last year and it showed a conductivity reading of 40-50 in the area of tomatoes. He did a broad spectrum nutrient drench (minerals, electrolytes, molasses) and the tomatoes survived! With every transplant we do now, we add a "transplant drench" by the Nutrient Density Supply Company which is a combination of mycorrhizal fungi and microbes, seaweed extracts, minerals and enzymes
Brix Measurements in Plant Sap
In the previous posts on ND growing, brix was a measurement used in discerning how nutrient dense a food was before consumption. I was referring to the final carrot or fruit, but the sap of the plant's leaves and its brix can be used to determine whether or not the plant is taking up nutrients from the soil and if it is in general a genetically strong plant. For example, when I was growing eggplant seedlings indoors this spring I noticed that one plant out of 20 sitting in a try was infested with aphids. None of the other plants were touched which led me to throw out the plant because I knew it was weak perhaps to some genetic variability. Ideally this should be done before fruit sets and levels should not be below 12. Early morning is the best time to test and keep a consistent area to test on the plant to minimize experimental factors i.e. the 4th newest full size leaf. If the measurement is under 12 then it indicates that your plant is stressed in some way and needs your help.
Beyond this, one can measure the pH of the plant (not the soil, which is typically done) which helps to discern mineral imbalances without having to send off a soil sample for testing.
Farm and Garden Maintenance
Though this may all seem time consuming for the average gardener, it's even more so for the farmer with a larger acreage and even less time. However, if measurements are made 15 minutes once a week, it's a way to ensure minimal disease (remember insects do not choose to eat strong plants only weak ones), maximum crop yields, and a superior vegetable or fruit in nutrition and in shelf life. On our microfarm, it can also be quite time consuming as each raised bed has to be treated like a seperate "field'. After the transplant solution, weekly to bi-weekly nutrient drenches to the soil and foliar sprays depending on measurements are done throughout the season. Foliar sprays are another way to provide plants with nutrition other than through their roots. Like skin, they absorb nutrition from their leaves as well and the best time to do foliars are at 5 AM or 7 PM (when the birds are out singing). This way of growning is beyond organic growing. Though this method of growing is more costly and time intensive to the farmers the viabiliity of seeing ND produce in markets can only be brought there by consumer demand just as the organic food movement did decades ago, it's an important area to explore. ND food will likely cost more but it's worth it. It helps when consumers understand the work that goes into their food. The best way to understand this is to grow your own food, join a CSA and actually get out into the fields and work! Only then can one really understand and fully appreciate what it takes to bring food to the table.