Tips for Starting Tomatoes

It is March 1st, so it is time to start thinking about starting your tomatoes indoors. Below I outline my tips for starting tomatoes in my climate, zone 6B in northeast Oregon.

Tip 1: Don’t start too early! They will catch up.

In northeast Oregon zone 6B, it isn’t really safe to transplant your tomatoes outside until June. The earlier you start your plants, the more of your house they will take over before they can go outside. Also, the earlier you start them, the deeper the hole and the more time it will take to transplant them outside.

I shoot for a plan that is about 8 inches tall and no more than 12 inches. However, my friends at Val’s Veggies in Medical Springs plant them much smaller and they catch up easily. Seeing how Val’s does it has made me want to plant smaller and smaller plants. I think smaller starts are generally more healthy because they have less time to develop problems or get leggy.

I think planting any time in March is safe for a healthy crop. Maybe try planting some tomatoes early and some later in March this year and see what works for you. Notice if the starts catch up with each other in size before planting and what happens with transplants too.

Tip 2: One seed per pot

I’m all about reducing complexity and work down the road. If you can carefully put one seed per pot or planting tray cell, it is a lot easier than trying to carefully disentangle tiny seedlings or thinning them later.

Tip 3: Big, deep pots

I like to start my tomatoes in large, deep tubes because I don’t have time to transplant 400 plants up from small trays. If you do start in small trays, make sure you transplant up to larger pots once they get bigger. Remember there should be at least the same depth for roots as you have for the shoot above ground. What I mean is you don’t want a two foot tall plant in a shallow pot. It is better to have a pot that is too big than too small.

Tomato starts in deep tubes.

Tip 4: Lots of light

Many people ask, “why are my tomatoes so spindly?” Answer: Not enough light! If your plants are consistently “leggy” your window isn’t doing the trick and you need a grow light.

Tip 5: Watch for disease & pests

We have trouble with mice getting into our greenhouse at night and mowing down young tomatoes and peppers. We set traps to reduce loss. Slugs will do the same thing, so consider leaving Sluggo pellets around your plants.

If you’re a smoker, do not touch your tomato plants without gloves. Tobacco mosaic virus can easily spread from your hands to tomatoes and it is bad. Give your plants the best start.

Tip 6: Whack ’em back

If your tomatoes get really healthy, and tall with thick stems, you can whack them back without worry. If they are making a jungle in your house or just getting too darn tall, it is important to prune them for a better transplant. Again, you want a 50/50 root to shoot ratio. If anything, you should have more/deeper roots than you have shoots above ground.

Remember to pluck off flowers and fruit before you transplant them. Both just waste your plant’s energy at the beginning of the season when they should be putting on vegetation rather than fruits and flowers.

Tip 7: Don’t transplant too early!

At our farm, we’ve had frost as late as Father’s Day often. If you plant before Father’s Day in June, be vigilant. You can use “Walls o’ Water” or remay/cloche to keep the frost off, but they only provide so much frost protection.

At our farm, we plant tomatoes inside the hoop house about May 15th and plant outside after Father’s Day. A lot of folks in our valley say, “wait to plant until the snow is off Mount Emily.” So you can try that if you want.

Keep an eye on the 7-day weather forecast to look for a good time to plant. I know the weather report for our farm is usually correct when it comes to precipitation, but wrong on the forecasted low temperatures. I usually just subtract 9 degrees to the forecast for a more accurate estimate.

Again, if your plants are huge but you don’t think the conditions are right for transplanting, just prune them back and wait.

Those are my tips! Thank you for reading.

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

Letter in Support of Double Up Food Bucks

The Oregon Legislature is reviewing two bills that would give state funding and support to the Double Up Food Bucks program. Here is my letter in support of these bills.

Click here to learn how to submit your own testimony by 9am Feb 2, 2021.

Double Up Food Bucks cards from the La Grande Farmers Market

February 1, 2021

Chair Gelser and Members of the Committee,

My name is Nella abdae Parks, and I am a farmer in Cove, northeast Oregon. I am writing to request your support for SB 440 & 555.

SB 555 and SB 440 support the expansion of Double Up Food Bucks Oregon, a SNAP incentive program with a proven record of success. For every dollar spent on SNAP-eligible foods at participating farmers markets, farm share programs, and grocery stores across the state, shoppers will receive a dollar to spend on Oregon-grown fruits and vegetables.

This program is important to me for two main reasons. First, it increases access to fresh, locally grown food for my neighbors, and second, it increases sales for my farm.

I accept hundreds of dollars of Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) each Saturday at the La Grande Farmers Market. Shoppers who use their Oregon Trail EBT card also get a $10 match at each market to buy more produce grown by local farmers and ranchers like me. Just like the Oregon Farm Direct Nutrition Program, Double Up Food Bucks help food benefit dollars recirculate more times in our rural community than if they were spent at a big box store. My business directly benefits from DUFB purchases. My employees benefit too because of the income the program brings to my business.

The impact of DUFB is not small. At our medium-sized, 5-month long market, shoppers use over $10,000 per year in DUFB to buy healthy, local produce. This money benefits many farms in my county and region and can make or break a slow day at the market. Furthermore, the DUFB program results in higher Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) spending at our market as well. Double Up Food Bucks is both an incentive to shop at our market and a welcome sign showing our community we really want everyone to shop with us.

The La Grande Farmers Market started our Double Up Food Bucks program about four years ago. In the first two years we received grant funding for the $10 matches. The program was so popular and so well supported by all shoppers at the market, we were able to fundraise about $10,000 per year from grants and local donations for the last two years to support the program. However, the grant funding is not sustainable for the long term.

SB 555 and SB 440 would assure the long-term sustainability of the DUFB program for our market and our shoppers. Double Up Food Bucks is not a complicated or convoluted safety net program–it directly addresses food insecurity and nutrition by putting dollars in the hands of folks who need them and directing them towards the purchase of healthy, fresh food from local farmers and ranchers.

Furthermore, many of the vendors at our farmers market themselves are low-income, so DUFB directly benefits even more low-income people.

Given the deep economic impact and loss of life and income during the COVID-19 pandemic, I think the Double Up Food Bucks program is more important than ever. More and more of my neighbors are in need of both food assistance and work. I am able to provide both through produce sales, produce donations, and by hiring local people. During COVID there has been a great increase in demand for my produce, and I have hired more people, produced more food, and provided a free food pantry at our farmstand. I am shopping for my elderly neighbors and helped our school meal program reach elderly residents and students. I feel I am doing all I can with my neighbors to help my community, but I am just one person and one farm. I urge Oregon’s senators and representatives to do all they can and support the citizen efforts on the ground like Double Up Food Bucks.

The power of our state government is to help address the problems and build the things that are too complex, too large or too global for us to address ourselves on the community scale. Please support the citizens of the state support our neighbors by passing SB 555 and SB 440.

Thank you for the consideration and for your service to our state.

Sincerely,
Nella Mae Parks
Nella Mae’s Farm
Cove, Oregon

Get Your Garden Ready for Frost

We have had a mild summer and fall this year on our farm in Cove, Oregon. The usual Labor Day frost didn’t touch us, but now it is the end of September and frost is inevitable–possibly tonight, September 27. Here are some tips on keeping your garden going a little longer this year.

Frost nipped the top of the pumpkin plants in early September.

Tip 1: Prioritize

Covering your garden every night and uncovering in the morning is tedious, so first prioritize what you really care about and what you can feasibly protect.

By September at latitude 45 north, no flowers will amount to mature vegetables–there just isn’t enough warmth or daylight left. Zucchini is the exception, but you might be tired of zucchini and glad to see it go anyway.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Not all your crops need frost protection.

Anything in the Brassica family–kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage–will make it. Lettuce and other leafy greens are also cold tolerant. Root vegetables are protected by stable ground heat. In my family, we dig carrots for Christmas dinner.

Many folks like to leave root crops in the ground and cover with straw for extra insulation. I tried this and even covered the straw with plastic. The mice ate 300 feet of carrots and were happy for their warm, dry home. I prefer to leave them in the ground without creating a mouse house, and have had no trouble with them freezing, especially once the snow falls and insulates them.

Basil can die above freezing–at 35F!
Crops that need protection.

Protect tomatoes, peppers, basil, flowers and any very young seedlings you planted for your fall garden. Remember–basil can die at 35 degrees or lower, so it needs extra protection.

If you bravely planted Dalias, rosemary or other crops that are marginally successful in my zone 5b, you need to come up with a plan to protect them over the winter.

And don’t forget about your potted plants. Above ground their roots will freeze, so bring them inside or dig a hole and put the pot in the ground.

Tip 2: Quicken Ripening

Our most beloved plants didn’t evolve in the northwest. They come from Mexico or Italy–Mediterranean climates. Give your plants more clues that it is time to ripen.

Your indeterminate tomatoes are probably flowering like there’s no tomorrow, but it is time to tell them the end is nigh. Hack off any flowering parts of the tomato. Pinch any flowers from peppers and keep the basil flowers pinched too. Cut way back on water so plants are “shocked” into ripening. Tomatoes need water 0-1 times per week at this point in the season.

If what you’re trying to ripen is flower seeds to save, cut off the water all together.

Photo by Richard Fletcher on Pexels.com

Tip 3: Watch the Weather

Every morning and late afternoon, I check the weather forecast. I want to know the nighttime low and weather the skies will be cloudy or clear. I don’t ready the NOAA forecast or anything fancy. User friendly weather sites for non-weather nerds are fine.

Frost is most likely to form on your garden if the nighttime low is near 32F and the skies are clear. Cloudy skies trap more heat and result in warmer nights. A weather forecast of a low of 35F and cloudy skies doesn’t alarm me as much as a forecast of 38F and clear skies. However, I always cover if the forecast is below 40F because I just sleep better.

We cover tomatoes outside the hoop houses with remay and boards keep the remay in place. We pull twine between the trellis posts to keep the remay above the tomatoes where it could get wet, touch, and freeze the plants. Photo by Evy Wallace.

Tip 4: Cover Up

Once you’ve prioritized which and how many plants you want to save, find covers you can use to keep frost off your plants at night. The idea with covering is to physically block dew from settling on your plants, freezing, bursting plant cells, and killing vegetative matter. The frost you can protect against is basically frozen dew.

Often the lowest temperatures will come after wind blows a storm through in the night. Your coverings must be able to withstand nightime breezes so you don’t have to get up at 3am to fix them.

What You Need
  • LIGHT WEIGHT, DRY coverings
    • Tarps or plastic sheeting
    • Remay, bedsheets or fabric
  • Weights or straps to keep covers in place.
    • Jugs or buckets of water
    • Boards or rocks
    • Bungees or ropes criss-crossed over covers

Testing out your frost protection system ahead of time is key. While their not pretty, I leave my coverings and weights right next to where they will be used so I can easily cover if the forecast unexpectedly changes.

uncover your plants & Keep covers dry

Especially if you use clear plastic, you can burn your plants up during the day if you leave the covers on. If you leave the covers on, the plants will get less light to ripen fruits. Also, keep the covers dry during the day. If you put wet covers on your plants, the covers themselves could freeze and freeze your plants.

Photo by FOX on Pexels.com

Tip 5: Melt Frost with Water

If the nighttime lows are forecasted to dip near 32F just before sunrise or you forgot to cover up, you can opt for spraying frost (frozen dew) off of plants before it has the chance to freeze plant cells.

In order to effectively melt the frost off and save your plants, you MUST spray it off BEFORE sunrise and continue to spray it off until AFTER sunrise.

The coldest temperatures occur after sunrise. Temperatures continue to drop until the sun is able to overcome the cooling of the earth. If you spray frost once but the temepratures are still below freezing, the water you added to your plants will freeze again. You have to use continuous water to keep the plants warmer and frost from forming. If sunlight hits tender vegetation with frost on it, it will blacken and die.

You can set up sprinklers around your garden and turn the sprinklers on in the morning or set them up on a timer to start before sunrise for frost protection. Just remember to drain your hoses every night so they are ready to use in the morning and not frozen themselves.

Photo by Anna Urlapova on Pexels.com

Tip 6: Observe Your Backyard Weather

Weather forecasts are general for your area, not specific to your garden. I have learned through the years that the forecast at my house is generally warmer by 5-9 degrees. That is to say if the forecast in Cove, Oregon is a low of 40F, it will be between 31-35F at our garden and may freeze. The forecast is perfectly accurate a quarter mile away at my friends’ house.

I have an indoor/outdoor thermometer and I keep mental track of the afternoon forecasted low versus the actual low at our house. Make sure you mount the outdoor thermometer near the ground where it is colder. Over the years, observation has allowed me to make the 39 degree rule–I will cover if the forecast is 39 or below. This rule just makes it easier to decide when to go to the enormous trouble of covering the farm.

I hope you are able to keep your gardens going through the nighttime temperature dips.

May we have a long, warm October.

Your Grateful Farmer,

Nella Mae

Wildfire Preparedness for Everybody

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Today is September 16th, 2020, and 40,000 Oregonians have had to evacuate their homes. About 10 percent of our state’s population, 500,000 people, are in an evacuation zone. Thousands of people on the wetter, rain forest side of the state never expected to face catastrophic wildfires. They expected the earthquake, the “big one” perhaps, but not fires that incinerate entire towns.

In central and eastern Oregon, we are accustomed to the smoke and fires that pile on the worst month of the year–August. Every three years or so, there are fires very near to one of the towns in my county, but until last week, we didn’t have an evacuation plan or “go bag.” Of all people, I really should have one because I need a plan for evacuating livestock and hardening a whole farm to fire.

I have been pulling my head out of the sand about wildfires inch by inch over the last year. Many of us were deeply disturbed by the fire the destroyed Paradise, California. Paradise felt so familiar to many rural mountain towns. I pulled my head out of the sand a little more as my family and I planned to build a house in the woods on our farm. We have made design choices to maximize fire resistance.

I have done a lot of reading and research in the last year about wildfire, and I finally have an evacuation plan and “go bags.” I want to share here what I’ve learned so far. I hope you take it to heart, make your plan, and get prepared for something I hope you don’t have to face.

Long Term Preparedness

Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

Here are things to do not way ahead of time–not in the midst of evacuation.

Preparing your home, whether your rent or own, is important to increase the chances of protecting it and your belongings. If you have a house to come back to after a wildfire, you will recover faster economically and emotionally.

I’ve learned there are three components to think about: vegetation, house materials, and insurance. These are boring topics. Sorry grownups!

Vegetation

Usually, fire moves through vegetation like a ladder from the ground up into the tree tops or into your home. You want to keep fire from getting on the first rung of the ladder, which means removing pine needs and keeping grass green or dry grass mowed. Keep dry vegetation from accumulating in the corners of your deck or underneath. You also don’t want to create a ladder of dry vegetation (like our glorious hops vines) onto your house, surround your house with stacks of firewood or landscape with kindling (aka, wood chip mulch.) I’ve read that you want a buffer of five feet of no vegetation around your house. From 5-30 feet from your house, you want to landscape with fire-resistant plants, limb up trees to six feet, and thin trees whose canopies touch.

Here’s what we’ve done so far: At our farm, we rotationally graze our cattle and then horses (who crop the grass shorter) throughout the season to keep our vegetation low, especially near our house and buildings. Even my daughter’s rabbit, Bunny Jane, pitches in keeping the grass down. My husband has limbed up all our trees up to six feet so that the small, dead lower branches don’t create a fire ladder. Finally, because we’re in the middle of house construction, we expanded our water system and added a lot more spigots near our road and throughout the property to keep vegetation green and to put out fires. I still haven’t been able to give up the hops climbing our barn.

House Materials

As we’re building a new house, we have been able to choose materials that “harden” our home to fire. We have chosen fiber cement siding (Hardie board), a metal roof, a cement deck, and fiberglass (rather than vinyl) windows. I have also learned a lot about the importance of screening your vents, cleaning your gutters, and blocking your eaves from the CalFire wildfire preparedness program.

CalFire has a list of inexpensive retrofits on their website including gutter covers and stove pipe screening. If you’re a renter, when windows, roof or siding needs to be replaced, talk to your landlord about using materials that harden the home.

Insurance

Renters insurance is really useful for more than just wildfire. I’ve used it as a renter to recover my belongings after a pipe burst, and a friend of mine used it when he was in a bicycle wreck with a pedestrian. Theft and other events are covered too. If you’re a landlord, please encourage and assist your renters in finding insurance.

For home and property owners, check your policy on an annual basis. When I checked mine, I found great news! Our company, Mutual of Enumclaw, covers wildfire and will even send a private company to apply fire retardant around our home if it is in danger at no cost to us.

Evacuation Preparedness

Here is what I have learned to do so far if we do have to evacuate.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Make an Evacuation Plan Plan

Here’s what we’ve done: My parents, husband, a few neighbors and I have made a verbal evacuation plan together. I have also written everything up and shared it. We have agreed on the WHEN, WHERE, WHAT, and HOW we will evacuate.

We plan to begin evacuation early before or during level 1 (level three is the highest.) We have discussed the order in which we will move things if we have time (camp trailers first, livestock second) and who will take which animals in which vehicles. We have made sure our vehicles are in working order, trailer tires are aired up, and trailers are easily accessible. We have also discussed our options for where we would go and where we would take our livestock. We have discussed the different routes we can take to leave our valley and who might host us out of harm’s way.

You may not have livestock or a farm, but I’m sure you have specific concerns of your own to think about. Who’s picking up grandma? What medications do you need? Do you have an irreplaceable keepsake at the bank safe deposit box or a storage unit? Do you have a physical disability that will make it harder to evacuate?

Preparedness for Humans

You need a “Go Bag” or “Go Box” that you can toss in your car and leave quickly. Wildfire preparedness educators suggest you need to think about the 6 P’s, but I’ve added a few more: People, pets, prescriptions, phone, photos, important papers, plastic (money & credit cards), and personal computer/hard drive.

Emergency preparedness educators say we all need a “Go Bag” that will sustain us in multiple kinds of disasters. The problem is, this ain’t cheap. Although I have scrounged what we already have for the Go Box, I have spent $150 on further supplies and I don’t have everything I’d like together. Maybe it is something worth building over time so you don’t have to plunk down so much cash at once.

Here is a basic list of what should go in your “Go Bag.”

  • Wallet/purse with ID, money and credit cards
  • Face masks or coverings
  • Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person
  • Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
  • Prescriptions or special medications
  • Sanitation supplies, toiletries, towels
  • Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • Change of clothing
  • An extra set of car keys
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight or headlamps and extra batteries
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
  • Phones & laptops with chargers for wall and car
  • Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
  • Pet food and water
  • Camping & sleeping stuff including folding chairs

For me, secondary things I want to take if I can are:

  • Instruments
  • Photos on the wall
  • Expensive stuff & stuff that will quicken recovery. For me this is my saddle, rototiller, and extra rolls of greenhouse plastic. Obviously taking this stuff would mean evacuating very early.
Preparedness for the Home

If we have to evacuate our farm and home, these are some tips I picked up from a lot of articles and podcasts. Do these things well before you have to evacuate. Some of them could become regular summer tasks.

  • Temporarily cover attic vents so embers can’t get inside (you can make metal covers ahead of time and have them near the vents at the ready.)
  • Move flammable outdoor furniture away from house
  • Move furniture inside house away from windows & remove drapes
  • Move any firewood, flammable vegetation away from house (I will have to tear down my hops!)
  • Close all windows, vents and skylights
  • Turn OFF propane or natural gas lines to your house and buildings
  • Leave ON electricity and water
  • Leave ON all outdoor lights for firefighters
  • Turn OFF sprinklers–leaving them running can reduce critical water pressure
  • Leave ladders out and available for firefighters
  • Leave gates open and doors unlocked
  • Leave hoses attached to hydrants/spigots for use by firefighters
Preparedness for Animals

This week I wrote an article about livestock evacuation and preparedness for the Capital Press. I interviewed a couple who evacuated their entire dairy goat herd 300 miles to escape wildfires in the Willamette Valley. I think their experience and tips are very valuable to learn from. (Luckily, their place didn’t burn!)

Photo by Vlad Cheu021ban on Pexels.com

The main points to know when evacuating livestock are: 1. Ask for help early, 2. Evacuate early, 3. Take what you’d need for 24 hrs.

To prepare a animal/livestock “Go Bag,” I recommend taking a look at the American Veterinary Medical Association website. They break it down by species so it is very useful!

Preparedness for your Community

Once you’ve planned out how to prepare your home, family and animals for wildfire and evacuation, look to your neighborhood and community.

Put people into your plan that might need extra help. Who needs a ride? Who has pets or livestock?

The best thing you can do to help your community is have a good plan and evacuate early. This will free you up to help others and free up resources that can go to someone else.

Thanks for reading!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

Fall planting and overwintering

August is usually a time when the mowing, weed eating, weeding and other garden chores ebb and the harvest peaks. A few yellow leaves off the cottonwoods are starting to fly, and the nights have that edge-of-fall chill. It may feel like harvest and canning time, but it is also time to start planting for fall and winter crops. Just think of this–for many years my dad and I have had the tradition of digging carrots for Christmas dinner. Wouldn’t you like to be eating the sweetest, brightest carrots too? If so, now is the time to plant.

Our overwintered Bolero carrots.
The Planting Season is the Whole Season

One of the biggest differences between a typical home garden and a market farm like mine is the frequency of planting. To extend the season, home gardeners can simply plant 1. small amounts, 2. more often, and 3. longer into the season.

As a market farmer, I start planting in the greenhouse in February. If it is dry enough, in April I start planting the February starts and seeds outside and in the hoop house. I consider my planting season weekly or bi-weekly from April through mid-September in my 6b hardiness zone.

Home gardeners will have less space than I have on the farm, but the concept is the same. Plant partial rows or plots weekly or bi-weekly throughout the season. Each week you can use a small hoe or hand hoe to prepare a small spot for a few feet of lettuce, beets or scallions. Spend 10 minutes planting a small space rather than putting in 20 feet of radishes. You cannot eat that many. I know the temptation once seeds get into your hand to plant until the packet is empty, but hold back!

How I Plant Season Long

As soon as one crop is pulled out of the ground, I prepare the soil for the next. I plan ahead and cut water to crops that I know only have one more picking so that I can harvest, pull, till and plant right away. I want the soil to dry out so I can till or hoe it into a proper seed bed. Make sure you remember to baby your seeds along with ample water (even if it is hand watering) through germination and into the true leave stage before you forget about them and treat them like the mature plants.

Scallions are a great fall and overwintering crop.
Pick the right varieties

If you want to expand your planting season, you need to buy the right seed. For spring you need “cold hardy” varieties. For spring you need “main crop” varieties or those that don’t seem too picky about heat or cold. For summer you need “heat tolerant” or “slow-bolting” varieties. In the fall, you return to your spring varieties. For winter you look for “overwintering” varieties or cold tolerant crops that have 120 or more days to maturity. Also, anything called “Russian” is a good indicator it is cold hardy.

If you buy your seed from companies with good seed descriptions, you will be better off. I like Johnny’s Select Seed for the very specific growing information and High Mowing and Baker Creek Heirlooms for the variety.

Use row cover & plastic

Row cover (aka cloche or remay) is a wonderful way to protect your fall and overwinter crops from cold and pests. I use Agribon 30 weight because it is the most durable. You can make hoops from number 9 fencing wire or 1 inch schedule 40 PVC thick wall pipe (don’t buy thin walled PVC.) You can make short “feet” and pound them into the ground and bend your PVC hoops over them. If you leave your row cover on all season, make sure to cover with clear plastic too. The weight of snow will damage your row cover.

Many folks use straw to protect the roots of crops they overwinter such as carrots. Some folks cover the straw with plastic too. I tried this on a 60×60 bed and made a perfectly warm, dry mouse house. They ate all my carrots. Now I just leave my carrots uncovered in the wilds of winter and they do just fine.

Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com
Crops for fall

Think about fall crops as those you eat the leaves or roots of as a guide. No tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers or basil. Think about eating things from norther latitudes, not from the Mediterranean or Mexico.

  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Scallions
  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Peas
  • Cilantro
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Cover crops

You can plant any of these crops now (mid-August) in zone 6b, but you can use the Johnny’s Selected Seed fall-harvest planting calculator to get more precise. The calculator is based on the last day of 10 hours of daylight at your latitude. In Cove, Oregon on the 45th parallel north, it is November 4th. Count backwards from there for planting dates by crop.

Here is my fall planting plan for our latitude and based on November 4th. Keep in mind, these are possible crops for each date–you don’t have to plant everything every week. One thing not on my list here are radishes. They can be planted pretty much any time after the heat abates.

Overwintering Crops

As I mentioned, carrots are great for overwintering. Look for “storage” or “overwintering” varieties like Johnny’s Bolero or Napoli. I had great luck with Bolero.

Other crops that are fun to try overwintering are kale, chard, broccoli, greens like mache & Claytonia, leeks, parsnips, and onions. Remember to pick the right variety and get all the info for best planting dates and practices. I really recommend overwintering chard.

Seeds that spring up

At the end of the season, I generally throw out a lot of pea, dill, and cilantro seed. It overwinters in the ground and comes up very early in the spring when conditions are right. It you can eat the pea shoots and young herbs in delightful spring meals you will appreciate after a long winter.

I hope this was helpful to you! Happy planting!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

It is time for city hall to support the farmers market

This is an excerpt of a letter I sent to the mayor of La Grande. The recent permit issues uncover the underlying need the farmers market has for stronger city support.

Please write the La Grande City Councilors and 1. Thank them for reversing the market permit decision and 2. Ask for the specific support I list here for the market.

Email your comments to rstrope@cityoflagrande.org by 5pm Monday, June 29th with the subject line “Public Comments for July 1st City Council Meeting.” You can also reach the city councilors directly:


Dear Mayor,
I hope this finds you well.
I am glad that the city reversed its course on the market.
This situation has me thinking about the rather tenuous position the market is in. While Stu is very easy to work with and very supportive of the market, I don’t get this feeling that city hall is. The La Grande Farmers Market draws hundreds of people downtown twice a week to shop. It is one of the only regular tourist attractions, and markets are becoming expected by tourists. We have dozens of downtown sponsors because of the value we bring to downtown. However, we still pay rent at Max Square. We still have regular, protracted negotiations about usage of Max Square. For example, the negotiation to put up the sun shade over the stage seating (which we offered to fundraise and pay for) was year-long process which was held up by a single citizen’s opposition. A few years ago, we were kicked out of Max Square with three weeks notice for Max Square reconstruction. The market was not considered in the reconstruction schedule although we are the most frequent user of the space.
My question is this: How can we change this relationship? When will city hall see the value that the market brings to the community, citizens and downtown? What can the city do to start supporting the market in a real way?
As a member of the Oregon Farmers Market Association, I know that many cities in the state either provide staff, funds, or other support for their markets. To date, the market receives no money or resources from the city and our use of Max Square is tenuous.  I know many cities across Oregon would pay big bucks for a market as vibrant and established as ours. In short, I think city hall takes our market for granted and assumes its permanence.
2020 is the market’s 40th year of bootstrapping existence. The community’s support for the market is clear. The value the market brings to downtown is clear. Perhaps in this toughest of the 40 years, city hall could provide some support in words and deeds. Here are a few ideas:
  1. As mayor, write an op-ed in The Observer in support of the market.
  2. Establish a city fund supporting the market which could help pay for overhead market costs or the manager position.
  3. Improve signage for the market. (We paid for the construction and installation of the signs over the bus stop.)
  4. Build a bathroom at Max Square to accommodate the market and other events.
  5. Promote the market with local citizens to help us grow our customer base.
  6. Develop a long-term agreement with the market to ensure our ongoing use of Max Square.
  7. Waive the annual rental fee during this difficult year and maybe forever.
  8. Establish a working group between the city and market to create a strong relationship and come up with other ideas to keep the market strong downtown.
I’m sure the market staff, board members, vendors and shoppers have many more ideas.
Let’s use this situation to create a better partnership so we can have a strong market for 40 more years.
Thank you,
Nella Mae Parks
Nella Mae’s Farm
Note: I am a market vendor and not a farmers market board member. I do not speak for the board.

Why we should re-open the farmers market in Max Square

This is an open letter to the La Grande city council and city manager who suspended the farmers market’s permit to use Max Square, a city park, due to concerns about COVID.

If you’re concerned about the market and want to see it back in Max Square, please email your comments to rstrope@cityoflagrande.org by 5pm Monday, June 29th with the subject line “Public Comments for July 1st City Council Meeting.” You can also reach the city councilors directly:


To the La Grande City Manager and City Councilors,

First, thank you for your public service during this difficult time. I know you are facing the same personal challenges that the COVID outbreak has brought as well as leadership challenges. You are working to make decisions that balance concerns about the recent outbreak with the impacts restrictions place on local people and businesses.

As a small business owner and farmer, I too am working to balance the need to protect my employees’ health and paychecks with the need to keep my business viable. I raise produce in Cove and sell it to local restaurants, retail establishments, and directly to my customers at our on-farm farmstand in Cove and at the La Grande Farmers Market in Max Square.

The early shut down of restaurants highly impacted my revenue, but I was able to make some adjustments and find sales outlets in new places. However, when the city suspended the farmers market’s permit to use Max Square last week, I had to start cutting employee hours. The farmers market makes up 60 percent of my sales income.

I am baffled by the city’s decision for three reasons:

  1. We know that outdoor shopping is the safest way to get groceries,
  2. The farmers market followed all the mask, distancing, and hand washing requirements laid out in May by the city without complaint, and
  3. Neither the city nor the mayor have provided evidence, reasoning, or timeline for the permit suspension or ability to discuss returning to Max Square.

There are many reasons that the farmers market permit should be reinstated by the city council at the July 1st meeting.

The market follows precautions–better than grocery stores

Our market manager worked with city employees to adopt strict mask and distancing rules, which are enforced at the market.

  • All vendors wear masks and we provide masks to any customer who doesn’t bring one.
  • We provide a mobile hand washing station for vendors and customers.
  • Vendors provide hand sanitizer for customer to use.
  • We mark six foot spacing in front of booths to help folks line up at a distance.
  • We space vendor booths 10 feet apart (when in Max Square and on 4th street.)
  • Vendors do not allow customers access to the produce or goods to avoid touching and handling.
  • The market is outside where spread of COVID is unlikely if folks are wearing masks and distancing.

There are many more guidelines and rules we are following which can be found on the homepage of the farmers market website: www.lagrandefarmersmarket.org. In my experience shopping at other grocery stores around La Grande, most of these precautions are not being made.

The city’s suspension makes the market less safe

Due to the dedication of market employees and board and the generosity of EONI, we were able to hold the farmers market in the EONI  parking lot last week. This space is very crowed and does not allow us to have 10 feet of distance between market stands. It also leaves less room for customers to socially distance.

Current space constraints will permanently hurt the market

The market will be permanently damaged by a prolonged exclusion from Max Square.

First, the market manager told me yesterday she doesn’t have enough room at the EONI parking lot to accommodate all the produce vendors. One vendor who has been coming to the farmers market for the entire 40 years it has been around doesn’t have a spot for Saturday.

Second, while the move around the corner to the EONI parking lot seems small, it is certain customers will not find the market. In my experience working with the Baker City Farmers Market, a two block venue change took years for customers to return at previous levels. My experience talking to other members of the Oregon Farmers Market Association confirms that market venue changes have lasting, deep affects on sales and the customer base.

Produce is on now–it won’t wait and people need it.

The produce is ready now. If vendors cannot get a space at the market or don’t come because the venue change has decreased customer traffic, the produce will go to waste. This impacts the viability of small farms and small businesses like me who are already struggling due to the loss of other sales outlets.

People need this produce now. The farmers market is an essential business that feeds people of all incomes across our community. The market has a robust SNAP program and dedicated customers. We also provide a SNAP match of $10 per customer per visit, which means low-income customers are able to make their SNAP dollars go further. This is particularly important as more people are utilizing SNAP and unemployment continues to rise.

Vendors & community members rely on the market economically

Due to the rippling impacts on our other sales outlets, the farmers market has become even more essential to farmers. People are staying at home, cooking more, and buying more produce. The market could buoy our struggling small farm businesses–unless the customers can’t find the market or vendors can’t attend the market due to space restrictions.

Furthermore, many of the vendors who attend the farmers market are already on the edge financially. For decades the market has provided a place and a customer base for community members to make extra money selling produce, baked goods, art, woodworking and more. Right now, the market is only allowing food vendors to attend in our restricted space, which means folks who could really use the extra market cash now are shut out.

I urge the city manager and city council to work with the farmers market to reinstate our permit and allow us back at Max Square. We are willing to following any rules that will keep our customers, vendors and the community safe. We want to feed people and keep our businesses afloat and keep the market open. 2020 is the La Grande Farmers Market’s 40th anniversary, and it is more essential than ever to keep it open.

Sincerely,

Nella Mae Parks, Nella Mae’s Farm, Cove

Former La Grande Farmers Market board president

 

 

 

 

Tips for Growing Tomatoes

I have been getting a lot of questions from new gardeners at the farmers market about tomatoes lately. Can I plant them now (May)? What’s the best way to plant them? Why are the plants I started so spindly? I want to give my best tomato growing tips for northeast Oregon to help you have a bountiful season.

Tomatoes are funny in that they are not very hardy (not resistant to frost) but in all the other ways, they aren’t too picky or difficult to grow in northeast Oregon (zone 5b.) Here are my tips.

1. Rotate your tomato bed

It is a good always a good idea to change up the places you put crops in the same family each year or every few years. This helps prevent crop-specific pests and disease from establishing in the soil. With tomatoes it is important to rotate because they are also “heavy feeders.” They can deplete the soil and if you don’t give the soil time and other plants to help it recover, you won’t have vigorous tomatoes in that place.

2. Wait until after Father’s Day

I think the safest thing to do is wait to plant your tomatoes until after Father’s Day in northeast Oregon. My poor husband has woken up to me cursing like a sailor on Father’s Day when I walked outside at 4:30am to find that the weather forecast was off by 10 degrees–it was 30 and freezing my tomatoes, not a safe 40. He spent the first three hours of Father’s Day rushing around with me in a continual circuit spraying frost off tomatoes, then returning to spray again before the water froze until after sunrise.

If your plants are screaming to get out of their tiny pots now, get some potting soil and pot them up into larger containers. You can also prune them smaller when you pot them up. If you just can’t wait until Father’s Day to plant, either get some wall-o’-water at the gardening store or cover them with plastic or sheets nightly for awhile–it is easy to get surprised by frost. Either way, you’ll have to keep a close eye on the weather forecast and subtract 5 degrees from the estimated low to be safe.

We used Wall-o’-Waters in my first adult garden. Shown on right.

3. Plant deep or horizontally

Tomato plants need lots of roots to keep them upright and mine the soil. If you have tall plants, first take off most of the lower leaves with scissors or pruners. We plant them so 60-80 percent of the plant is in the ground, and 20-40 percent is above ground. You can either: 1. Dig deep holes or 2. plant them horizontally.

At the farm, we dig little trenches with a hoe and lay the plant horizontally in the hole. Since tomatoes can make roots from any part of the buried stem, this gives the plant a solid root base as they grow. The same happens if you plant them deep.

4. Pick off flowers & fruit

If your tomato transplants (starts) have fruit or flowers on them when you buy them or are ready to plant, pinch them off. Your plant needs to focus energy on making shoots and leaves, not flowers and fruits to begin with. Many tomatoes are indeterminate, which means they will continuously flower up until the day the frost takes them. If you pinch flowers now, you will still get plenty later.

5. Trellising

Home gardeners usually use tomato cages to keep the vine-y plant upright so the fruit is off the ground and easy to pick. Cages work fine, but are kind of expensive. At the farm, we use the “Florida Weave” to trellis our tomatoes using posts and twine. (We actually just use old irrigation tape instead of twine now, but twine works great.) Please do yourself a favor and watch this great video on how to do the Florida Weave.

These are our tomatoes trellised in our hoop house.

6. Pruning

Tomatoes are so easy to prune and pruning is worth the effort! You just have to get comfortable taking a lot of vegetative matter off the plant and learn what suckers look like. Suckers always come out of the main stem at a 45 degree angle. This is a really great, quick video that will help you learn to prune. At the very least, prune the lower leaves and branches so that none are touching the ground and picking up disease.

7. Deep, long watering

Transplanted tomatoes need frequent watering to get them over the transplant shock. After they are recovered and putting on growth, it it is time for deep, long waterings. At the farm we water every three or four days for three hours. Daily watering can cause the fruit to split. Long waterings help encourage deeper root growth which helps with stability and resilience. Think about deisingin your irrigation set up so you can water the tomatoes separately from crops that don’t want that much water.

8. Freeze them!

I will never miss a chance to encourage folks to roast and freeze their tomato bounty. You don’t need to spend every weekend canning tomato sauce. Just roast tomatoes in the oven and bag or jar them in the freezer. You can make sauce, salsa, etc all winter long. Check out my recipe here.

Thanks for reading!

Your grateful farmer, Nella Mae.

 

Tips for Growing your Victory Garden

If you’ve been thinking about starting a Corona Victory Garden, I am writing to say, it isn’t too late in the season! No matter where you live or your climate, you can always plant seeds and enjoy the freshest produce you’ve ever tasted. No matter how much experience or space you have, you can grow a garden and your farmer is here to help you get started.

I started gardening like an adult with three roommates in 2011. Our landlord allowed us to garden in the front and back. Our motto was “food, not lawns!” The neighbors had mixed feelings until they started finding bags of produce on their porches.

The garden we grew (below) is, well, not the tidiest. You can do better than we did in that department. Or you can go wild with the rain barrels and the corn patch and sunflowers.

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Before: Prepping the front yard garden with my roommates.

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After: Our garden in full production.

I want to help you garden

A big part of what I want to do at the farm in 2020 is host gardening workshops and classes. I finally have enough experience to share with you all! I hosted a terrific class in early this year (before Coronavirus made it dangerous to do so) with 25 people in attendance, even on a snowy, cold day. I wish I could be hosting more classes right now during the peak of our camas bloom, but alas. Instead, I am hosting regular Zoom meetings, called “Garden Hour with Nella Mae,” where I answer your garden questions. Check out my calendar or Facebook page for the next Garden Hour as well as on-farm classes once it is safe to host them again. I am also trying to get your questions answered with this blog. Please let me know what topics you’d like to see.

Choosing Your Seeds

Check out my earlier blog post about reading a seed catalog. Even if you’re buying seeds off the rack at the hardware store, this will help you understand a lot of vocabulary.

Also, check out my resources page for handouts I’ve made for early/beginning gardening, irrigation, and more.

seed catalogs

Prepping your soil

I have had great luck turning over sod at rental houses (with permission mostly) and getting a productive garden in year one. There is a lot to say about prepping your soil, but the most important thing is to add organic matter (dry, fluffy compost) each season and to avoid compacting your soil by tilling or walking on it when it is wet.

My next blog post will be about prepping and amending garden soil, but for now, check out this article in Mother Earth News for some tips.

Tips for starting your garden

1. Start with the “tried & trues.”

If you’re new to gardening, don’t start with asparagus or blueberries. Start with the “tried & true” crops that are easy to grow and you can eat this season. (Asparagus and blueberries take a few years to produce a crop and have finicky soil requirements.) I suggest starting with these crops.

  • Roots- Radishes & beets
  • Greens- Spinach, lettuce & kale
  • Herbs- Cilantro & basil
  • Fruits- Tomatoes & cucumbers

I suggest buying tomato and basil plants to transplant into your garden because they are susceptible to frost. I suggest waiting until after June 15th in northeast Oregon to plant out these plants due to frost. Everything else you can “direct seed” into your soil now. You can also direct seed basil seed in June for continuous harvest.

Carrots can be tricky. They need careful monitoring and watering during germination. if you are careful with

2. It ain’t gotta be fancy!

Don’t think you need to buy expensive boxes or expensive seed or expensive tools. Start small with what you have and make improvements and changes year by year. Grab that old dresser marked “free” on the sidewalk and use the drawers to make planter boxes. Use the hoses and sprinklers you’ve got and add to your irrigation system as you go. It is better to see how things work first and buy things to match your needs.

At our rental house there was a broken hot tub when we moved in. We didn’t have a truck to haul it away, so we filled it with soil, made a glass lid and gardened in it when it was snowy. You might have a higher sense of decorum than I did in my early 20’s, but the point is, use what you have!

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You can see the hot tub greenhouse at the bottom of the photo.

3. Grow what you actually eat.

There is something about the possibility that seeds embody that makes us loose our heads. Universally, we buy too much seed. We buy things we don’t actually eat because they are intriguing.  Just stick to five or 10 crops you actual eat on a weekly basis. This will also mean you actually save money on food.

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Tomatoes from my 2011 garden.

4. Plant in succession

Beginning gardeners don’t realize that planting is an ongoing activity, not a one time thing. At the farm we plant on Wednesdays all season long. We plant greens every other week ensure a continuous supply and replant crops that we pulled out or that were not vigorous. The same week we pull broccoli, we’re putting new broccoli starts right back in. In planning your succession, choose varieties that are “early,” “main season,” “heat tolerant,” and “overwintering” to take you through the whole season and into next spring.

5. Weeding

Weeding never ends, but it is also seasonal. You will have more weeds in the early spring, so focus more weeding time then. Devout an hour or two a week, but if things get away from you, it is ok. You can recover.

My weeding philosophy is this: there will always be weeds; there will always be new species of weeds; take it one day at a time; enjoy the meditative process; get the roots; keep them from going to flower or seed; there is an ebb and flow to weeds–it isn’t static.

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The weeds got away from us this year in a few lettuce beds, but we plugged away and spent some quality family time pulling them.

6. Watering

Different plants need different amounts of water. As a general rule, deep rooted plants like tomatoes and peppers need water less often for longer. Shallow rooted plants need water more often for less time. It is best to water in the morning or at night rather than the heat of the day. The hotter it is, the more water needed. Seeds need constant moist soil to get started.

7. Make your experiments small.

It is fun to try strange or new plants. Do it! Enjoy your experiments but focus on your main eating crops. Our rule on the farm is we only allow 10 percent of time and space to be spent on experiments. This year’s experiments include a row of fava beans, a row of bulbing fennel, a row of cress, and some new varieties of herbs including saltwort, cumin and leaf celery.

Best of luck!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

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The summer bounty in our garden in 2011.