Farming

Farmers’ Market Voice | Farm Home Garden

So often when farming I make the mistake of thinking when I’m done with a project that I’m all set and ready to move on to the next thing. wrong! Just this past week we put up hoops and covered our garlic with a semi-transparent fabric called row cover. It took Steph and I an afternoon to sink the hoops into the ground, lay the cloth, and hold it in place with carts full of bricks and heavy pieces of firewood. And then the winds came a few days later—extremely high winds that ripped a panel off the roof of our greenhouse and blew the cover off of half the garlic. So we set to it again and secured it with even more bricks to the point that it withstood another bout of high winds. “Great!” I thought. “Now I don’t have to worry about it until it’s time to take the cover off.”

And then the snow came. Five inches of wet, heavy snow that completely flattened 400 feet of hooped garlic. Garlic is pretty tough, so it should survive, but it’s probably damaged a bit, and now we’ll have to go out and reposition all the hoops and row cover once the snow melts away. Setbacks like this are annoying but are all part of the game. We’re actually pretty lucky; we almost started transplanting our onions, which would have added to the trouble.

Garlic and onions used to be the easiest crops to grow. But then came an invasive fly that feeds on garlic, onions and other alliums like our leeks. (Notice a pattern developing here?) A globalized economy brings us all kinds of cheap crap that’s easy on the bank account, but one of the costs of choice and convenience is the introduction of invasive species. An invasive species is an organism that is brought either directly or indirectly into the country from somewhere else and which doesn’t have any natural predators or competitors here. Invasive plants run rampant, and, in the case of the imported Tree of Heaven, can also be harbingers of other invasive pests, such as the Spotted Lanternfly, which are drawn to their favorite snack, the Tree of Heaven, but end up spilling over onto—and destroying—our prized fruit trees.

Getting back to our garlic and onions: some six or seven years ago, some fool must have ordered some garlic bulbs to eat, plant or sell from eastern Europe, where a well-known pest in that region was already devouring their allium crops. The Allium Leaf Miner (ALM) is a fly that emerges every spring and lays eggs on the leaves of allium plants. Its larvae quickly hatch and chew down the stem and into the allium bulb, where they pupate and then hatch again a few months later as flies, and the cycle continues once more in the fall. The aforementioned fool (or company) that imported foreign garlic also imported the ALM and is the reason we now have to muck around every spring with hoops and row cover. Yes, I’m bitter about this because it’s just not necessary to buy garlic from anywhere else. We grow literal tons of the best garlic in the world right here in the United States.

I know many of you grow your own garlic and onions in your backyard—I’ve answered countless questions from backyard growers over the years about allium production, so I know you’re out there! If you’re an experienced grower who all-of-a-sudden in the past couple of years has ended up with onions rotting from the inside out, the culprit is the ALM. As soon as you transplant those babies you must cover them up or the larvae will destroy them. Garlic fares a little better, as they rarely make it all the way into the bulb, but they can sure make a mess of other tissues down there and lead to browning and bulbs that won’t keep as long. How can you tell if your alliums have been hit by the ALM? Look at the tips of the leaves, and if you see a line of white spots, you know it’s unfortunately too late.

Your best option for control of the ALM is exclusion. For hoops, you can get a coil of black tubing from the hardware store and cut them to whatever lengths you need. I loathe plastic, but hoops made from this tubing will last a lifetime. Simply stick the ends in the ground over your rows, get some row cover (Agribon is the most common brand), lay it over your hoop structure, and use bricks, rocks, or some other kind of weight to hold the cover in place. Then pray for no strong winds or deep, heavy snows! We also cover up eggplant to exclude flea beetles and use row cover without hoops on our squash and cucumbers to exclude squash beetles. Once those plants are mature, or, in the case of the ALM, the flies are done with their spring flight, you can uncover and stash that row cover away for use in the fall to cover up any remaining leeks or tender plants you want to protect from frost.

Farming and gardening is certainly not always easy, but the truth is that I would do just about anything to make sure we have a harvest of garlic and onions. For us, the beginning of most meals begins with the smell of sautéing onions and garlic, a delightful smell that permeates the house and lets us know that good, home-cooked food is on its way. All the hooping, hauling, and covering that we do every spring ends up making that homely smell even sweeter.

Nick can be found selling fresh veggies every Thursday at the Huntingdon Farmers’ Market from 11 am to 3 pm May-October. More information can be found at www.huntingdonfarmersmarket.org.

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