The Planting Process: Peppers and Tomatoes

Because of multiple flooding events this winter and near-constant rain, our spring planting schedule has been delayed significantly. The soil has just been too wet. Even in the greenhouses, the water table was near surface level until recently. Thankfully, the sun finally decided to come out for a few days last week, and we got a ton of much-needed planting done both inside and out of the greenhouses.

Last Friday, the crew planted a small greenhouse with jalapeños and ancho peppers. The pepper plants were beginning to outgrow their cells and needed to get into the ground before becoming root-bound.

Before planting, the crew laid down plastic mulch over lines of drip irrigation tape. One person measured out two rows per bed and poked small holes in the plastic at one-foot intervals.

Another person carried trays of peppers down the rows and gently placed a pepper plant next to each hole.

The rest of the crew followed behind the plant layer downer (in this case, Palemon), and proceeded to plant the peppers in the ground.

The planter used his (or her) fingers to open the pre-poked hole in the plastic.

He pushed the drip irrigation tape toward the middle of the bed, so it will stay close but not too close to the plant.

He plunged a trowel into the soil and pulled it forward to create a hole for the plug to fit into.

He pulled out the trowel and then used an additional scoop of soil to fill in around the plant.

Speed and efficiency are important in the planting process, but each plant must get a good start in the ground in order to yield well later.

Planting each pepper takes less than a minute, but hundreds of peppers fit in one greenhouse and thousands (millions?) of vegetable and fruit starts are transplanted into the ground each year, so it adds up to a very large number of labor hours.

These jalapeños plants will hopefully bear a large amount of hot peppers, which will be sold wholesale to Organically Grown Company for distribution around the Northwest or to our friends at Sweet Creek Foods who will pickle them and sell jars of pickled peppers.

Peppers love heat, so after the crew finished up planting, they shut up the ends of the greenhouse. On sunny spring days, we open up the greenhouse ends for ventilation, but we close them up every night and leave them shut on cloudy days.

After planting all the hot peppers, the crew moved on to a neighboring greenhouse to plant tomatoes. This greenhouse got planted with two beds of red romas and two beds of yellow romas.

Like with the peppers, one crew member dropped a plant next to each hole. Indeterminate tomatoes such as these are spaced at three-foot intervals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A planter (in this case, Macario) gouged his trowel in the ground, pulled the plant out of the pot, and placed it into the hole, making sure to keep the graft line on the stem above the soil. Because the graft is so low on the stem, the plants can’t be planted very deep, and the tall, lanky foliage is a little floppy. Later trellising will straighten the plants out.

Planting tomatoes takes a little longer than planting peppers because they’re more fragile, and the crew members have to remove each start from a pot.

Hopefully, these pepper and tomato plants will begin to produce ripe fruit by July.

For more info on which varieties of peppers and tomatoes Gathering Together Farm has planted this year, read more here (peppers) and here (tomatoes).

Transplanting Peppers

 

This time of year, the propagation greenhouse is always busy. Head lettuce and various salad mix components are seeded weekly, and there are still plenty of mid and late summer crops sown on a regular basis. The biggest job in the propagation greenhouse this past week involved transplanting many thousands of pepper starts into larger pots (2.5″), so they’d have a bit more room to grow until the soil and climate conditions are ready for them to be planted outside.

Peppers are hand seeded into “200s” (flats with 198 individual cells) and encouraged to sprout in the propagation greenhouse sprouting chamber (see more about our sprouting chamber in this past blog post). When the first cotyledons appear, they’re pulled out of the sprouting chamber and placed on heated tables under grow lights. After about a month, the roots of the pepper plants will more or less fill the cells and start to get cramped for space.

Just filling up almost 300 trays of pots with soil takes a day’s labor for a couple workers. Fortunately or unfortunately, all the dirt work is done by hand. (To learn get our soil mix recipe, see this past blog post.)

Sarah pokes holes for incoming transplants with a gloved finger.

When young pepper starts are ready to transplant, they will readily pull out of cells without damaging the roots.

Sarah plugs the transplant into the hole and gently pushes it into the soil.

She smooths out the soil and adds a little extra where needed. When she finishes a whole tray, she marks it with a labeled popsicle stick and adds it to the table of newly transplanted pepper starts.

Though time consuming, transplanting peppers is not a highly technical job. Like many tasks on the farm, however, it does require a lot of patience and dedication paired with a keen eye for quality control. Mistreatment of the starts or mislabeling of the flats can cause significant losses of both plants and time, so workers must focus on the task at hand from the beginning of the process all the way to the end.

These newly transplanted starts will grow in the propagation greenhouse until the end of May when they can be planted outside in the fields.

These pepper starts are about two months old and were transplanted into bigger pots a month ago. They’re grown under lights to encourage them to bush out to the sides instead of elongating upward. They’ll be in the propagation greenhouse for another couple weeks until greenhouses can be prepped for planting in the ground.

This year, Gathering Together Farm is growing the following varieties of peppers (some in greenhouses, many outdoors):

Sweet Peppers

Jimmy Nardello’s from Seed Savers Exchange

Stocky Red Rooster from Wild Garden Seed

Gatherer’s Gold Sweet Italian from Wild Garden Seed

Golden Treasure from Seed Savers Exchange

Lipstick from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Early Sunsation from Logan Zenner

Admiral from Osborne Seed Company

Gourmet from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Islander from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Red Knight from Osborne Seed Company

King Arthur from Osborne Seed Company

Red Ruffled Pimento from Seeds of Change

Hot Peppers

Serrano del Sol from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Red Rocket from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

El Jefe from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Corcel from Osborn Seed Company

Highlander from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

How To Graft Tomatoes (GTF Method)

Gathering Together Farm has been growing a significant portion of its tomato crop in greenhouses for over 15 years. Because of the limited space available under cover, the greenhouse rotation schedule has been less than ideal, making it necessary to plant tomatoes in the same houses more frequently than recommended. Over the years, the soil in particular greenhouses began to harbor various diseases that were stunting the growth and production of the tomato plants grown under cover. It became apparent that something needed to change if the farm was going to continue to plant tomatoes in existing greenhouses. The solution was grafting. Now, about 70-80% of the Gathering Together Farm tomato crop comes off grafted plants.

In essence, grafting tomatoes lets farmers reap the yield off of the tomato variety of their choice, but that scion is grown on highly disease resistant rootstocks. The result is more vigorous plants, a larger yield of higher quality fruits, and a longer period of productivity. Tomato grafting has been practiced for decades by growers who have been planting tomatoes in the same ground year after year because of limited space for necessary crop rotation.

At Gathering Together Farm, Paula has been grafting tomatoes for four years, and at this point, she has a fairly high success rate, about 90-95%. Paula and Joelene learned the art of grafting tomatoes from reading the literature online and in print, experimenting, and collaborating with Alice at Log House Plants, who was figuring out grafting methods around the same time.

To start off, ‘Maxifort‘ rootstock from Johnny’s Selected Seeds are seeded into 2.5″ pots, and all the other varieties of tomato scion are seeded into flats with 98 cells (“100s”). Even though the seed is relatively expensive, Gathering Together Farm over-seeds the rootstock by about 40% to account for an 80% germination rate and the fact that some rootstock plants will be unsuitable for grafting. Trays of seeded pots and flats are placed into a dark, humid chamber heated to about 85°.

The sprouting chamber is a farm-made structure with grated shelving underlain with rubber hoses through which warm water flows from an electric water heater. The sides and doors are plastic with velcro closures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting four days after seeding, Joelene pulls every tray of pots seeded with rootstock out of the hot chamber and examines each pot for any signs of above-ground sprouting. If even the slightest bit of white tendril is showing, she pulls the pot and joins it with other sprouted tomatoes on a warmed table in the greenhouse. She sorts the new tomato seedlings daily until it becomes apparent than anything left is never going to sprout (up to two weeks after seeding). Grouping seedlings in like-staged trays will allow Paula to more easily match rootstock and scion at the exact same stem size.

The scion varieties generally sprout at about the same time, so Joelene pulls them out of the sprouting chamber when she sees any above-ground growth.

Tomato starts grow on heated tables for about three weeks.

There’s some debate among the grafting team about whether or not the rootstock plants should be placed under lights after seedlings are pulled from the sprouting chamber. At this time, it is believed that the lights may stunt the elongation of the stems, so the rootstock plants are allowed to grow on warmed tables without lights while scion plants do grow under lights.

It is critical when grafting for the stems of the rootstock plants and the stems of the scion plants to be the same diameter. If it seems like the rootstock or the scion is outpacing the other’s growth, Paula will move trays off the warming tables to slow growth. Sometimes she will even move trays to the ground in the shade if she needs to let the plant parts match catch up.

Here’s what the ‘Maxifort’ rootstock looks like when it’s ready for grafting. Ideally, the rootstock plants will have straight stems, but sometimes they don’t. Some bent-stemmed rootstock plants can be used for grafting, but really crooked ones or plants with the cotyledons too close to the soil surface are discarded.

The day before she plans to graft, Paula selects rootstock plants that will match up with the scion.

She waters the rootstock well because they can’t be watered again directly for a couple weeks.

She puts the rootstock under lights in a last ditch effort to encourage the stems to grow as straight as possible.

Paula moves the scion into a dark area to slow photosynthesis so that the plants are as dormant as possible when grafting.

For grafting, Paula splits these double edge razor blades (from Fred Meyer) and uses one blade for two trays of grafts (64 plants) before discarding it.

These are 1.5mm and 2mm silicon tomato-grafting clips from Hydro Gardens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, she pinches the top of the rootstock and swiftly cuts the stem at a 45° angle. She must cut the stem at least an inch above the soil level, so that when the tomato start is transplanted into the ground, the scion stem will not touch the earth. She also cuts the stem below the cotyledons, so that the rootstock will not produce any foliage or fruit.

She discards the rootstock top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then she finds a matching scion plant and cuts its stem at a 45° angle.

This is a tray of mostly cut scion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She fits the clip on the rootstock stem and then slides the scion in, matching up the 45° angles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The line of symmetry of the clip should be perpendicular to the plane of the graft so that the clip is in contact with the rootstock and the scion equally.

If she’s grafting larger seedlings, Paula will sometimes cut off the cotelydons to decrease the weight of the scion and keep it from slumping over and putting extra pressure on the graft.

Each tray is marked with the date of the graft.

Paula heavily mists the newly grafted plants. The tray of pots is placed inside another solid plastic tray.

She mists the inside of the cover, tightly closes the top vents, and fits it tightly on the bottom tray, eliminating any airflow and preventing the plants from drying out. Gathering Together Farm purchased the covers from McConkey.

The post-graft healing “building” is a structure built inside the Gathering Together Farm propagation greenhouse. It’s divided into two chambers, a dark chamber and a shaded chamber. Each chamber has built-in shelving for trays of grafted tomatoes with lids. The dark chamber, is covered with black plastic under a reflective tarp (silver side out to prevent the absorption of heat). The shaded chamber is covered with white plastic under shade cloth with some insulation on the south side to keep it from getting too hot. The healing building offers a shelter with limited temperature fluctuations, limited sunlight (or no sunlight), and limited airflow that will allow the plants to heal slowly without attempting to photosynthesize until the graft is set.

The trays of newly grafted plants are placed on shelves in the dark chamber and left there for about three days.

After three days in the dark, tomato plants are moved onto shelves in the shaded chamber for a day, and then they stay in the same chamber with overhead lights for another day.

After a day under lights, the top vents on the cover are opened.

The next day, the covers are propped open to allow limited air to flow through the trays. A day or so later, the covers are taken off completely.

Eventually, the uncovered trays are moved out to unheated tables in the propagation greenhouse.

With each step after the trays come out of the dark, the plants are assessed, and if they seem to be wilting or looking sickly, Paula will move them back a step and wait another day to try again.

About a month after grafting, the joint between rootstock and scion will have healed, and the stems will have grown enough so that the clips will start to pop off or they can be removed by hand.

Grafted tomato plants will be transplanted into the ground a few weeks later. When planting, it is critical that the graft line remain well above ground, so that the scion will not root into the soil. The graft will remain visible for the full life of the plant.

This is the Gathering Together Farm tomato-grafting method for the 2012 season It is probably different than any of the tomato-grafting methods practiced around the world. As we continue to learn from our mistakes and experiment with new techniques, this process may change in little or perhaps big ways.

Gathering Together Farm grows and grafts the following varieties of tomatoes:

Red Indeterminate Tomatoes:

Big Beef F1 from Osborne Seed Company

New Girl F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Rebelski from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Big Dena F1 from Hydrogarden

Arbason F1 from Osborne Seed Company

Colored Indeterminate Tomatoes:

Cherokee Green from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Cherokee Purple from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Black Krim from Seed Saver’s Exchange

Pruden’s Purple from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Momotaro F1 from Territorial Seed Company

Rose from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Carolina Gold F1 from Osborne Seed Company

Brandywine Yellow from Osborne Seed Company

Copia from High Mowing Organic Seeds

Indigo Rose from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Roma-type:

San Marzano 168 F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Golden Rave F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

 

Gathering Together Farm also grow the following tomato varieties ungrafted:

Red Determinate Tomatoes:

Siletz F1 from Seeds of Change

BHN 826 F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Roma-Type:

Mariana F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Viva Italia from Osborne Seed Company

Cherry:

Yellow Mini F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Black Cherry from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Sun Gold F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Favorita F1 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Sunpeach F1 from Osborne Seed Company

New Greenhouses & New Challenges

Over the winter, the crew has raised five new greenhouses with one more to go. After putting up greenhouses nearly every year for a decade, the crew has the system pretty well figured out.

In November, the farm got a shipment of greenhouse poles from a large greenhouse supply wholesaler based in California along with a specialized pipe-bending machine. The crew made enough hoops for the six new greenhouses in about a day of work, and then they shipped the pipe bender back South.

Unfortunately during the snowstorm, a few days before the flood in January, two small existing greenhouse collapsed under the weight of the snow. While some of the materials were salvageable and could be used again, the hoops could no longer serve as hoops. In a rush to get the farm up and running again, the pipe arches that were supposed to be for one of the new greenhouses were used to replace the bent ones in the fallen shelters.

Fortunately, John had ordered a number of extra pipes that had been reserved for use as straight sections along the peaks or as horizontal supports along the sides of new greenhouses. Sections from the fallen greenhouse could be substituted for those purposes, but the long straight pipes still needed to be bent into hoops.

Shipping the pipe bender up from California and then back down in order to bend 40 hoops seemed prohibitively expensive, so John (co-owner), Rodrigo (crew foreman), and various other crew members devised a makeshift mold out of plywood and 2 x 4’s left over from another project. The contraption was affixed to a couple of picnic tables and a beam in the packing shed.

Instead of gently feeding poles into a pipe-bending machine, this method required quite a bit of muscle.

The system didn’t work perfectly. There were kinks to be worked out and overly flat sections. The 2 x 4s were reconfigured several times as trial and error suggested improvements.

It was a labor-intensive project. Was it cost effective? Well…maybe.

But at the end of the day, the crew had hoops to work with.

Meanwhile in the field…

Here are the first few farm-bent hoops in the ground. They’re obviously not perfect, but the tension of the plastic and the supports will hold everything together well enough. The only real concern about this DIY bending method is that there may be particular points of weakness that will be extra vulnerable under a future snow pack.

Two of these greenhouses were here last season, but six are new. After two cold, wet springs in a row, the farm management was feeling like it needed to hedge its bets by creating more spaces where the climate could be somewhat regulated. This year, Joelene and the crew will plant greenhouses with crops they’ve never planted under cover before like bunching chard, radishes, etc. More potatoes will grow in greenhouses than out in open fields. These crops will all but guarantee that the farm will have a product to sell at early spring farmers’ markets and will be prepared for a bigger-than-ever group of CSA members expecting produce boxes starting in mid June.

There are also spaces between the greenhouses that serve as small micro climates. Last year, peppers were planted in one such area, and they were highly vigorous and prolific.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several of the new greenhouses have already been planted with new crops this spring like the one above that’s seeded with radishes and mustards.

Joelene’s primary task right now is rigging up proper irrigation for each of the new greenhouses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joelene (seed, irrigation, and greenhouse manager) sets up all new greenhouses for both drip and overhead irrigation, so that they can accomodate a wide range of crops. Also important is accessibility. Ideally, the crew would be able to get tractors in and out of the greenhouses and be able to drive up to or inside them, too. That means irrigation pipes must be buried. Some of these trenches were dug with a trencher and some were dug by hand. Either way, it’s been a super muddy project.

Guy has been helping Joelene with the fittings and set up.

Joelene prefers PVC pipe over metal because it’s cheaper, holds up better, and doesn’t corrode.

Each of the two sets of three greenhouses will be equipped with its own sand filter, and Joelene has planned to have plenty of easily accessible hookups for drip irrigating the adjacent field or setting up irrigation in neighboring greenhouses that may be built in the future. Planning ahead now will take a little extra time and supplies, but it has the potential to save a huge amount of energy and effort years down the road.

The whole process of setting up irrigation has been hampered by the wet weather. The individual pipes leading to each greenhouse will eventually be plumbed into a mainline that is over four feet underground. The mainline has been located, but it is at present so far below the water table that Joelene will have to wait until the weather dries out a bit to have good enough access to hook up to it.

Joelene is the mastermind and the main source of muscle behind the mélange of irrigation systems that cover the entire farm. Thanks to her (and her assistant, Sarah), GTF fruits and vegetables have the needed water to flourish.

 

Mixing Soil and Seeding Onions

Last week, the propagation greenhouse crew had its annual onion-seeding marathon, 574 flats in three partial workdays with the help of four people. This was the single biggest one-crop planting of the year

Onions are a staple vegetable at the farm, yielding throughout the summer, and storing well into the fall and winter. Gathering Together Farm is growing the following varieties this year (a couple new ones plus tried and true favorites):

Red Storage–‘Ruby Ring’, ‘Red River’, ‘Cabernet’ from Osborne Seed Company

Sweet–‘Walla Walla’, ‘Candy’, ‘Exhibition’ from Osborne Seed Company

White–‘Sierra Blanca’ from Osborne Seed Company

Yellow Storage–‘Talon’ from Territorial Seed Company, ‘Trekker’ and ‘Frontier’ from Osborne Seed Company

Shallots–‘Ambition’, ‘Saffron’ from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah (above left), Paula (above right), and Leslie (who politely opted not to get her photo taken) do most of the routine seeding and propagation greenhouse upkeep. Joelene schedules all the plantings, investigates any problems with equipment or germination as promptly as possible, and oversees the crew, making sure they have what they need to work effectively and efficiently.

Fine Pumice

Soil is the foundation for healthy and successful plant starts. The propagation greenhouse crew mixes all the potting soil used for spring and summer seeding and transplanting from scratch. The soil recipe is based on a mix recommended by Eliot Coleman (organic farming proponent). Over the years, the mix has evolved into the farm’s current recipe.

Gathering Together Farm Greenhouse Soil Mix Recipe

8 gallons composted rabbit manure and leaves

4 gallons peat

4 gallons fine pumice

2 cups powder mix (a 1:1 ratio of green sand, kelp meal, oyster shell flour, fish bone meal, glacial rock dust, and crab meal)

Peat
Sifted Compost

All the ingredients are loaded into the farm’s cement mixer that’s exclusively dedicated to mixing soil. They’re tumbled until they’re evenly distributed. The soil then gets unloaded into a wheelbarrow.

For seeding onions, Sarah, Paula, and Leslie mixed soil and filled 574 flats of “162’s” (flats with 162 cells).

The soil was lightly packed into the flats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flats were stacked 20-high so that the soil in each cell got compressed slightly, leaving a depression for the onion seeds. The flats got stickers to mark the variety with which they would be seeded.

This is the electric seeder. It was purchased used from Peoria Gardens many years ago. Sarah is the primary seeder operator these days, though she “studied” under Joelene’s tutelage.

Here’s the base of the seeder. Each flat is manually placed here to start.

This is the hopper with onion seeds. When it’s turned on, this tray is agitated to get a better distribution of seeds, so they can be sucked up by the  seeder tips.

This header with seeder tips rotates down and sucks up at least one seed per tip. (The one on the far right has two.) When it rotates back up, the suction is released, and the seeds fall down the tubes…

…into individual cells. The tips and tubes can be reconfigured to work with different sized cells, but Gathering Together Farm uses the electric seeder on primarily 162’s.

A steady “ca-chunk, ca-chunk” is the soundtrack as the flats move haltingly down the line, stopping briefly for seed deposits in each cell.

The flats are pushed along automatically by several oscillating arms that give each cell wall a shove down the line.

Sarah has to manually grab the flats off the base before they’re pushed off the end onto the ground (which happens on a very rare occasion).

This occupancy gauge signals to the seeder that a tray is passing through, but if it doesn’t sense a flat, it halts the seed dropping mechanism, avoiding major seed losses as things get busy, and Sarah can’t make it back to feed in the next flat fast enough.

Each tray passes through the seeder twice to ensure that each cell gets at least two seeds. When Sarah is seeding something that she knows has a particularly bad germination rate, she will sometimes send each flat through three times.

In between loading and unloading flats, adding more seed to the hopper, watching to make sure all the mechanical parts are doing their respective jobs, giving flats an extra shove when necessary, and subconsciously keeping track of how many times each flat has passed through the seeder, Sarah tops off the sown flats with a pumice-rich soil mix.

These flats of onions will spend the next two months in the warmth of the propagation greenhouse. During that time, they will be thinned once, trimmed once, weeded twice (because the compost does have some weed seeds in it), and watered daily. The field crew will transplant them outside in mid April where they’ll need weeding at least once more before harvest (not to mention lots of irrigating).

Expect to see fresh onions at our farmers’ markets and in CSA boxes in late spring/early summer. Until then, we still have some of last season’s storage onions available.