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Posts Tagged ‘weather’

All covered up

Salvador and Mike unroll Reemay to cover a row of heirloom tomatoes.

Salvador and Mike unroll Reemay to cover a row of heirloom tomatoes.

On Wednesday afternoon, the folks at Bee Heaven Farm were preparing for a chilly night. Farmer Margie Pikarsky asked visiting farmer Mike Libsch and farm hand Salvador to put the floating row cover, or Reemay, over the rows of heirloom tomatoes and beans. They are tender plants and do not like it when it gets too cold.

Mike and Salvador unrolled the bundles of light weight cover, and draped each row of tomatoes. They tied down the middle in sections with string, so that the cover wouldn’t billow and blow away, and the ends were knotted and secured. Reemay covered bush beans like a blanket, and clumps of straw bales held the edges down. The men worked quickly as the late afternoon sun sank in the clear sky.

Salvador ties down the cover so it doesn't fly around.

Salvador ties down the cover so it doesn’t fly around.

“Reemay keeps the temps a couple degrees warmer,” Margie told me. “It makes a difference between frying the tomato plants from the cold, or continuing on.” The weather forecasts called for temperatures to drop to 39 degrees in Redland, and that put area farmers on alert. “You could get patchy frost,” Margie explained, saying that it could be just as dangerous as a freeze. “As soon as temps drop below 40, in the mid 30s, you’re in trouble.”

Reemay draped over tomato trellis before getting tied down. Bush beans got covered too.

Reemay draped over tomato trellis before getting tied down. Bush beans got covered too.

Better to cover up than to take a chance on getting plants destroyed by cold. Overnight, temperatures dropped as low as 36 in various areas in Redland. “This morning there was a lot of frost,” Margie said. The cover stayed on until frost was completely gone, around  8 or 9 in the morning. Tomato and bean plants looked alright, but Margie explained that cold damage doesn’t become evident until a couple days later. For now, the Reemay was rolled up and put away, until the next cold snap comes.

Note: Reemay is a spun polyester fabric that breathes, and will not burn plants it comes in contact with. Plastic, on the other hand, will do that, and should be used only if there is a frame or support keeping it off plants.

Heirloom tomato plants all covered up.

Heirloom tomato plants all covered up.

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A long, cold December

December: Warm weather veggies like asian eggplant weren’t able to take the cold.

It’s balmy now, but last month was a long, bitter December. Three cold spells hit Redland hard with night after night of record-breaking low temperatures that dropped to freezing and below. It was the coldest December on record in South Florida, according to the National Weather Service, and the coldest stretch of temperatures in the South Dade agricultural areas since 1989. The last time temperatures were even slightly this cold was last January, when we had almost two weeks straight of severely cold weather, also with lows in the 30s and below.

December: Tops of tomato plants froze despite being covered in straw to keep warm.

Farmer Margie told me Bee Heaven Farm got “a blanket of frost” during the second freeze early in December. (She posted many pictures of frost damage on the farm’s Facebook page.) Besides running irrigation, she had her own ideas about how to protect her plants from the freezing temperatures. If you came by for Farm Day in mid-December, you saw a lot of straw piled along rows of plants. That straw was piled on top of young pole beans and young tomatoes, forming “teepees,” as Margie put it. The straw acted like a blanket to keep the cold out. It mostly worked, except in places here and there where wind pushed straw aside and exposed plants to killing cold. Some tomato plants showed damage, and some in the same row looked ok. On my latest visit last Friday, I noticed that a few survivor tomato plants were blooming and a couple others already had fruit growing. Heirloom tomato lovers, have hope!

January: Some pole beans survived freezing temperatures. The smaller plants down the row replaced the ones that couldn’t take the cold.

Pole bean plants that survived looked vigorous last week with promising tendrils twirling up bamboo poles. Bush beans (Tongue of Fire and Dragon’s Tongue) were looking pretty good too. They had been covered with a two layers of a long white blanket of spun polyester called Reemay, its sides weighted down with straw so they wouldn’t get blown around by the wind. It worked fairly well, and lots of those beautiful purple and red colored beans made it to market the last two weeks.

The cold made plants go dormant, and their growth slowed down for a while. In the last few days of warmer weather, they suddenly hit a growth spurt. Tomato and pole bean plants with significant damage were removed and replanted. As I looked around Bee Heaven, it was hard to tell where the freezes had left damage.

But not everybody fared so well. After the second freeze in mid-December, I went out to look at one of Dan Howard’s bean fields. (Dan runs Homestead Organic Farms, and plants about 100 acres of beans and other vegetables every season.) The bean plants were still on the small side, not even half

December: Green beans in one of Dan’s fields didn’t make it. See the damaged leaves? Imagine a 20 acre field looking like this.

grown, and in the late afternoon sun, they seemed ok. But when I stooped down and looked more closely, I saw that almost almost every plant had discolored leaves damaged from the cold. Dan said he had sprayed water on his fields all night long. Ideally, water would freeze and ice would coat the plants to preserve them from further damage. Didn’t look like it worked all that well in the field I visited, yet Dan said that some of his other fields got less damage. He’s replanting beans and starting over this month.

December’s freezes hurt large commercial growers in South Dade with $273 million in crop losses, according to the Florida Dept. of Agriculture. (Last January, growers were hit with $280 million in crop losses.)

January: Some tomatoes survived. This plant is about knee high. Note gaps in the rows where damaged plants were removed and replanted.

The recent losses have their impact on us eaters as well. According to a recent article in the Miami Herald, prices for green beans, corn and yellow squash have gone up dramatically due to short supplies. And we still have a couple more months of winter to go. The long-range forecast did call for temperatures warmer than average. Hopefully that will turn out to be the case.

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Summer has just begun and it’s already a scorcher! We’ve had above normal temperatures since April 26, according to the National Weather Service. Highs have been 90 degrees or above since May 30 (except for a slight dip to 88 on June 1). The heat index has been 100+ degrees most days. Last June was even hotter. Record temperatures were set on June 22, 2009 in Miami with a high of 98. Fort Lauderdale had a high of 100, tying an all time record. This summer feels hotter because temps have consistently been at 90 or above for 59 days and counting, while last summer temps were mostly in the high 80s with a few spikes in the 90s.

The last picture I took before getting chased off by a hot and cranky bee.

This crazy heat has an effect on livestock at Bee Heaven Farm. Chickens stand with their beaks open, panting, and hold their wings out a bit to their sides to try to cool off. Bees don’t like heat and get cranky. I passed by the hives when beekeeeper Miguel Bode was working with them a few weekends ago. One bee took offense to where I was standing, buzzed around my head, and chased me for a good distance. Lucky for me, I didn’t get stung but it felt close! Even the worms in the vermiculture bin have been suffering mightily. Instinctively they’ve dived down to the bottom of the bin, seeking cooler soil, but hit bottom instead. The Worm Guy (that’s what Margie calls him) advised chilling them down with frozen water bottles buried in the bin. Wigglers on the rocks, anyone?

I asked Farmer Margie what grows well in this kind of heat. “Weeds!” she exclaimed. Those weeds completely took over vegetable beds after Gleaning Day. Margie mowed them down, and now that she’s had two days without rain, she’s out on her tractor tilling the soil, preparing to plant cover crops.

Some summer fruit is finally starting to get ready, but running a little behind schedule because of the freeze this winter. The extended period of super cold weather caused plants to go dormant for weeks. Lychees (Mauritus variety) are bearing late this year. Margie pointed out that last year, a bumper crop of lychees were harvested in late May. This year the harvest began in mid-June, and the quantity isn’t quite as much.

Mauritus lychees from last summer.

Another casualty of the cold are mango trees which were in bloom in January when the freeze hit. The long stretch of freezing temperatures damaged blossoms. Some fruit set and grew, but then aborted and fell off. I’ve seen trees that don’t have as much fruit, and if they do, they’re not as plentiful and not as big or developed.

Half-grown Donnie avocado.

Avocado trees seemed to escape significant damage from the freeze in January. Branches are loaded with fruit several inches long, about the size of Haas avocados in the groceries. If you’re not familiar with Florida avocados, and you have a tree in your yard, don’t get confused and pick early! The varieties that grow here, especially the Donnies that Margie raises, get much much, much bigger than the Haas variety from California or Mexico. Last summer many Donnie avocados weighed in at 3 pounds apiece, and one giant weighed 4 pounds. Avocado picking will start in mid-July, also several weeks later than last summer.

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