One thing you will hear me preach over and over is the fact that the soil is the single most important aspect to any healthy garden. Everything starts in the soil. It's alive and crawling with billions of organisms, including bacteria, fungi, and insects. Some of those organisms benefit your plants immensely, some of them are detrimental. The key to a successful garden is not to eliminate the detrimental organisms all together, but to manage their impact by promoting the beneficial ones.
Let me introduce to you one of the most important beneficial organisms living in your soil, the nematode. Nematodes are microscopic non-segmented round worms that flourish in moist soils that contain sufficient food sources in the form of insects, plants, and animals. That's right, not all nematodes are beneficial to gardening, some of them actually do damage to plant roots. Luckily there are beneficial ones that will actually parasitize the bad ones.
Chances are you probably already have beneficial nematodes living in your garden right now. They are working hard to devour grubs and overwintering insects as you read this. Unfortunately they can't keep the levels of those pests down enough to prevent them from doing damage to your garden. The good news is that you can actually introduce millions of them to your garden with minimal effort!
Purchasing beneficial nematodes for your garden
I sprayed nematodes on Ronin Farm this year for the first time. I purchased them from Arbico Organics, which is a great company that specializes in all things organic and biological. I decided to get their triple threat package in order to cover all my bases. This package comes with three species of beneficial nematodes and is advertised to control over 80 different pests!
NemAttack, Sc - Armyworm (Pseudaletia unipuncta), Artichoke Plume Moth, Bagworm, Beet Armyworm (Spodoptera exigua (Hubner)), Black Cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon (Hufnagel)), Black Vine Weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus), Bluegrass Weevil, Caterpillars, Cockroaches (American, Asian, German), Codling Moth (Cydia pomonella), Corn Earworm, Cotton Bollworm, Cranberry Girdler, Cucumber Beetle, Cutworm (Agrotis, Amathes, Peridroma, Prodenia spp), Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), Flea Larvae, Fly Larvae, Fruit Flies (Drasophylla), Greater Peach Tree Borer (Synanthedon exitiosa), Lesser Peach Tree Borer (Synanthedon pictipes), Large Pine Weevil, Leafminers, Mint Flea Beetle, Mint Root Borer, Mole Crickets, Navel Orangeworm, Strawberry Root Weevil (Otiorhynchus ovatus), Tobacco Budworm, Webworms, Wireworm, Wood Borers
NemAttack, Sf - Beet Armyworm, Black Cutworm, Cabbage Maggot, Codling Moth, Corn Earworm, Cucumber Beetle, Fruit Flies (Drasophylla), Fungus Gnats (Bradysia impatiens), Onion Maggots, Pill Worm, Raspberry Crown Borer, Root Maggots, Sclarids, Shore Flies, Subterranean Termites, Sweet Potato Weevil, Thrips (Franklinothrips sp), Ticks, Tobacco Cutworm
NemaSeek, Hb - Ants (Queen), Asparagus Beetle (Crioceris asparagi; Crioceris duodecimpunctata), Bagworm, Banana Moth, Banana Weevil, Berry Root Weevil, Billbug, Black Vine Weevil, Borers (Iris, Tree, Vine), Carrot Weevil (Listronotus oregonensis), Chafers (European, Masked), Citrus Root Weevil, Colorado Potato Beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata), Corn Rootworm, Cranberry Root Weevil, Cucumber Beetle (Spotted) (Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi), Flea Beetles, Fleas (Adults), Gall Midges, Grape Root Borer, Grubs, Humpbacked Flies, Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica Newman), Leafminers, May/June Bugs (Phyllophaga sp.), Root Weevils, Scarabs, Sugarcane Stalk Borer, Sweet Potato Weevil, Ticks
They have specific species you can purchase individually as well. For example, if you are interested in reducing the number of fleas in your lawn you can purchase just the NemAttack for this specific pest.
Visit Arbico Organics to purchase beneficial nematodes: https://www.arbico-organics.com
Applying nematodes to your soil
Applying nematodes is super easy and can be done with a fertilizer injector or backpack sprayer. I decided to buy a hozon fertilizer injector because I will also use it to apply liquid organic fertilizer to the garden so I can use it for multiple purposes.
I mixed the powder from the triple threat package with water in a 5 gallon bucket. You don't need to mix it with a specific amount of water, you just need to make sure you cover the specific area based on how much is specified on the package. I purchased the 10 million count which covers 3,200 sq feet. Each garden space I was spraying it on was about 1,000 sq ft so I divided the powder into thirds and mixed up three different 5 gallon bucket solutions - one for each garden area I was spraying.
The hozon fertilizer injector will inject 1 part of your solution with 15 parts of water automatically. I was able to water each 1,000 sq foot section easily with each 5 gallon bucket of solution without coming close to running out. This allowed me to get a good soil drench, which is crucial to ensuring the nematodes have a nice moist soil to get established in.
And that's all there is to it! Once they are applied to the soil they go to work immediately on parasitizing and devouring your soil pests.
After three days I dug around in the garden where I sprayed to see if I could find any evidence that they were working. To my surprise I found a white grub that was limp and discolored, which was exactly what I was hoping to find based on my research.
I am very pleased with the results of this experiment. With a price tag of $80 to cover 3,000 square feet of garden space twice a year, I think it is a great investment when you consider how many different pests this will help to control. The best part is that this process is not harmful to any beneficial insects including earthworms, lady beetles, or honey bees! (Unlike some organic pesticides) I will definitely add this to my IPM practices each season.
If you have any questions about the technicalities, or about nematodes in general, please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.
Written by Corey Wahl
Director of Farm Operations
Ronin Farm in Bryan, Texas
Growing Potatoes in Texas
Valentine's Day has come and gone and for me that only means one thing, it's time to plant potatoes! Okay, so I guess it means two things because it's also the day to shower my girlfriend with love and affection, but only after those potatoes are planted! I intended to publish this blog post much sooner, but Valentine's Day is also a very busy weekend for the farm and the restaurant and we have all been working extra hard to execute exceptional service for such an important occasion.
Choosing quality seed potatoes to start
The first step to planting potatoes in Texas is to source high quality seed potatoes. Seed potatoes are just like the potatoes you would see at the store, except they are usually certified to be disease free and they aren't sprayed with growth inhibitors. Planting certified disease free potatoes is important so you don't introduce something to your garden soil that will cause problems down the road. I usually buy my potatoes at Producer's Co-op in Bryan, or if I am looking for some more interesting varieties I will order them from PotatoGarden.com because they usually ship them at the correct time of the year. Some websites offer great varieties, but they seem to ship them way too late for those of us in Texas.
Preparing your seed potatoes for planting
Once you have acquired your seed potatoes the next step is to prepare them for planting. This involves cutting them into smaller pieces and allowing them to cure, or suberize, to protect them from rotting in the ground.
The trick to cutting the potatoes is to use a very sharp knife that is sterilized before use. The general rule of thumb I use is to leave the really small ones whole (about the size of a golf ball), cut the medium ones in half (the ones that are the size of a lemon), and cut the largest ones into quarters (the ones that are the size of an orange). You just want to make sure that each piece has at least two "eyes" on it when you are done cutting them. Once the the potatoes are cut they should be placed cut side up in a cool spot with good ventilation for at least 4 to 5 days, or until they develop a nice thick callus layer on the cut side.
Planting potatoes in the garden
There are a few different methods for planting potatoes in the ground. One of the most common methods is to plant them in a furrow and then mound up soil around the plants as they grow. I was taught to plant potatoes a little differently from a grower at Texas A&M, and it has always worked for me, so I continue to use this method each year. This method is to plant them extra deep in the beginning and cover them with soil once and be done with it. In order to do this you will need well-cultivated soil with good drainage. I recommend working in a few inches of well-aged compost into your beds to prepare the soil ahead of time.
Planting date: Mid-February to Mid-March
Plant spacing: ~12" between each seed piece
Planting depth: 10 to 12"
In this demonstration plot I dug down about 8" and planted the seed pieces with the eyes facing upward. Usually I would plant them a little deeper, 10" to 12", but I added an extra 2 to 3" of compost to the top of the row at the very end to make up for this.
After all the potatoes were placed into their holes, I used a rake to cover them up with soil. As I covered them with the soil I also added MicroLife Organic Granular Fertilizer to the soil at the recommended rate on the bag. Potatoes are heavy feeders and will perform better with good nutrition, which is provided by a great all-around fertilizer like MicroLife.
Once the potatoes were covered with topsoil, I added a 3 inch layer of well-aged compost over the row to increase the depth of the potatoes to that ideal 10 to 12" range.
Over the years I have found that potatoes need minimal irrigation for the most part in Texas. The spring rains that we receive are usually sufficient to produce good potatoes. There are specific times where you will want to make sure the plants do not dry out too much or else you will run into problems with misshapen or split potatoes. When the plant begins to flower this is a sign that the plant is going into it's bulking phase. This is the time when you want to make sure your plant is receiving a couple inches of water per week so it has sufficient water to form the tubers. Inconsistency with watering during this period can lead to deformed tubers.
Once the plants begin to start yellowing this is a sign that they are shutting down and the tubers are almost fully developed. The soil will still need to remain slightly moist during this period in order to preserve the integrity of the tuber, but watering can be reduced significantly.
If you plan to store the potatoes for a long time you can let the tops of the plants die back all the way and reduce watering completely for a couple weeks. This will cure the potatoes underground before you dig them up for storage.
You can harvest potatoes at different times depending on what size and texture you are looking for.
New Potatoes - New potatoes are the delicious, tender, and thin-skinned potatoes that are formed right after the plant starts flowering. Once your potato plants begin to flower you can carefully dig down with a soil fork and harvest some or all of the immature potatoes from under the plant. These potatoes won't store well because of their thin skin, but they are delicious if you plan to eat them within a week or so.
Storage potatoes - Storage potatoes are the mature potatoes that are dug up after the plant reaches the end of its life cycle. When the plant is finished storing starch in the tubers it will begin to turn yellow and wither. Once the plant dies completely you can dig up your fully mature potatoes. This can be accomplished by using a shovel or potato fork. Carefully dig underneath the plant from a good distance, because the tubers can grow outward as well as downward. You don't want to dig straight underneath the plant or else you may damage some of the tubers.
Once your potatoes have been dug, keep the soil on them and store them somewhere cool (50 to 60 degrees) for a week or two until the skins cure and harden. If you plan to store some of them long-term, the ideal temperature is 40 degrees and you will want to maintain 90% humidity. No matter how you store your potatoes, the most important thing is to keep them out of direct sunlight or else they will develop a toxic green pigment and will no longer be edible.
Growing potatoes in grow bags if you don't have a garden
For those of you who don't have a garden you can grow potatoes in grow bags on your patio or porch if it receives enough sunlight. There are potato grow bags you can purchase that are specifically made for growing potatoes, or you can buy some felt pots like the ones I have pictured below. The idea is to roll down the sides of the pot and plant the potatoes near the bottom of the bag. Once the plant starts to grow you can roll up the sides of the pot and fill in the bag with soil. Keep doing this until you reach the top and the plant is growing up above the top of the bag. I started a couple bags as an experiment because I have never done this before, and I will post a full blog post about it when I am done to let you know what I think about the process.
You will want to use most of the same methods as above for watering, fertilizing, and harvesting. Harvesting is much easier with this method though because you can just carefully dump the bag onto a tarp when you are ready to harvest.
If you have any questions about growing potatoes in your garden please feel free to send me a message, I would love to hear from you!
Recommended products for growing potatoes:
Written by Corey Wahl
Director of Farm Operations
Ronin Farm in Bryan, Texas
One thing that I love about farming is that it is extremely dynamic. No season is exactly like the last season, and I am always looking ahead to the new season even before the current season ends. Recently while I was plotting new strategies for the farm in my head I decided to look for some new inspiration. I found just the inspiration I was looking for when I discovered the Instagram page of a gardener in England named Charles Dowding.
Charles is an author, instructor, and advocate for the no-dig method of gardening. His approach is to build upward on top of the soil, rather than till or flip the soil at the beginning of the season. I was intrigued when I started to read his online content and book. Rather than pull the weeds in the garden plot, or till up the soil to start anew, his approach calls for cardboard and a hefty amount of compost. A light bulb came on in my head as I excitedly envisioned the perfect spot to test out this method on the farm.
Last Fall I plowed a new section of the farm and formed several rows for planting. The season got away from me and these rows ended up turning into a weedy mess, as you can see in these photos:
In the past I would have cut my losses and re-tilled the rows to get rid of the weeds and start with a fresh plot. The problem with tilling too much is that it disturbs the soil structure and every time you disturb the soil you uncover more weed seeds, which just exacerbates the problem. So I turned to my new source of inspiration and decided to leave the rows exactly as they were, but instead of pulling the weeds the farm crew and I smothered them with cardboard:
I would like to point out that this method probably works best if you are dealing with annual weeds, not perennial weeds like Bermuda grass or nut sedge. Those weeds are aggressive and will eventually work their way through the cardboard barrier.
Once the cardboard was applied to the rows it was time to cover the cardboard with a nice thick layer of compost. The type and quality of compost is very important here. You will want to work with a well-aged compost because you will be planting directly into it. Fresh manure or mushroom compost won't work here because the plants won't be able to tolerate it. If you would like to use mushroom compost it will need to be aged until it is not hot anymore.
Once the compost was applied to the rows we filled-in the walkways with oak leaves and/or hay. I wouldn't normally recommend using hay in the field because it can be full of weed seeds and chemicals, but we have a source of some really clean hay so I was okay with using it here. We also applied a layer of hay on top of the compost to prevent it from eroding in the rain while we wait for warmer weather. Our plan is to let these rows sit and smother the weeds for at least a month before we plant our warm season crops directly into the compost in March. The cardboard will become wet and fragile from rain and/or irrigation, which will allow the roots of the plants to eventually break through into the soil below.
The cardboard and thick layer of compost will kill the weeds below and turn them into even more organic matter for the soil. Your plots should be relatively weed free for the season, but a few grasses might sneak through.
I highly recommend checking out Charles' books (featured above) for some great inspiration from a well-trusted gardener. This method can be used on field plots like we did at Ronin Farm, or you could apply this method to flat ground or bordered raised beds. However you choose to utilize this method it is sure to build great soil in your garden and allow you to spend less time pulling weeds.
Written by Corey Wahl, Director of Farm Operations at Ronin Farm in Bryan, TX