Gardening lessons learned from the farm


Susan Planck lifts a floating row cover in her home garden near Purcellville to examine young butternut squash plants. (Adrian Higgins/Adrian Higgins)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist August 20

Back in the 1970s, Chip and Susan Planck faced one of those watershed moments in life that seemed preordained in hindsight but at the time reflected a profound leap of faith.

They had the opportunity to buy some farmland in Loudoun County. Chip Planck was teaching international politics at the time, in Buffalo, but the land deal forced another decision: Should the couple give up a life in academia to become mom-and-pop farmers? Friends and, later, their farming mentors, Hiu and the late Tony Newcomb, were raising fruit and vegetables in Vienna and offered the Plancks and two other families the chance to join them in acquiring 400 acres of fertile land north of Purcellville. “It sounded perfect,” said Susan Planck. “We thought about it for two weeks and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

After growing vegetables for market for more than three decades, they marked their last growing season in 2010 and have since rented 21 / 2 acres to a young and enterprising farmer named David Giusti. They still raise onions, lettuce and tomatoes but, like the rest of us, in a home vegetable plot, next to a gray wooden ranch-style home with a stout stone chimney. (Their daughter Nina Planck has become a leading light in the local-food movement.)

I find this intensely interesting. In an age when so many young people are crossing the bridge from amateur gardening to a farming life, the Plancks have demonstrated that there is a way back.

The veggie plot — three discrete beds — is modest in comparison with the 20-plus acres they cultivated commercially, but commodious by domestic standards. Each bed is about 30 feet by 30 feet. Chip Planck shows me three long rows of strawberry plants, now resting after harvest. “We had so many strawberries,” he said, “we almost had to purchase a new freezer.” They feasted on greens adorned with berries and consumed enough to ward off the freezer purchase. The strawberry variety is Earliglow, which is unusual as a commercial variety for being small, red and flavorful.

The beauty of being a gardener, rather than a farmer, is that you can choose tasty varieties of vegetables whether they are old heirlooms or commercial hybrids without the farmer’s need for such varietal traits as drought-tolerance, yield and production schedules.

But lessons learned from the farm still define their veggie garden, including such favored varieties as the bicolored summer squash Zephyr, the inimitable heirloom tomato Cherokee Purple and a muskmelon named Ambrosia.

The harvest regime is, pretty much, as methodical as it was in their farming days: “We pick squash daily, cukes every two days, tomatoes and eggplant twice a week, beans every five to seven days and peppers once a week,” Susan Planck said.

Commercial growing techniques also work in such a home garden. This is an environment where, unchecked, big country weeds like Johnson grass would arrive to suck all the life out of the crops. So the Plancks continue to grow plants through filter fabric placed on top of drip irrigation hoses. The spaces between rows are mulched thickly with hay.

The Plancks also adopt a classic support technique for field-grown tomatoes — that is, a long row of plants interspersed with metal stakes. The grower weaves twine between the stakes, adding a higher line every week or so as the indeterminate plants grow. The vines look a bit like trussed fowl, but it’s quick and effective. This year, the couple is growing a lot of just three varieties, the beefy Cherokee Purple, the colorful slicing tomato Lemon Boy and the spicy, fruity and always prolific cherry variety Sungold. This lineup might be the only tomatoes you need, although they also grow a big red slicer named Lady Luck that is full of flavor but from a seed batch that has been discontinued.

I think of row covers as a way to extend the lettuce or spinach into winter, but these white fleeced tunnels remain an important summer feature both for the Plancks and for Giusti.

They are placed over heavy steel hoops and held firm with sandbags — forget laying lengths of pipe or wood or, worse, using the landscape staples that always cause the fabric to rip.

The row covers involve extra work and expense — and are better suited to drip irrigation than overhead watering — but when Susan Planck unfurled some, I could see why she bothers. The plants underneath were healthy and vigorous.

The covers keep insect pests away, provide some shade in the heat and stop the soil from crusting after rainfall. “We did do more covers as the years went by,” Chip Planck said, “even though it’s a pain in the neck.”

His wife reveals a row of bush beans named Jumbo. At three feet, they have almost outgrown their tunnel — they have certainly outgrown any attack of the bean beetle — and need uncovering so the bees can turn their blossoms into bean pods.

In another part of the garden, next to a seed-sown coneflower patch, she peels back the row cover to reveal robust winter squash vines, namely Waltham butternut. “This saves them against the cucumber beetles and the elements in general,” Susan Planck said.

Another crop that they still grow, as does Giusti, is lettuce. This runs counter to conventional wisdom — gardeners in these parts know that lettuces mature in May and grow bitter and bolt in June. But those are spring-grown lettuces. There are tricks to growing lettuce in the heat and humidity. The first is to select varieties bred for hot climates; they are growing Concept. Giusti favors Nevada and Magenta.

The second is to germinate them in flats and put them in as transplants because lettuce seed is slow to germinate in warm soil. Another element is succession planting; the lettuces grow quickly in summer and must be eaten before turning bitter. And yes, you want to give them the row cover treatment.

This is work, but it’s worth it for Giusti, who gets a good price for lettuce at this time of year, and worth it, too, for the Plancks, who need a vegetative companion to all those strawberries.

Life on the farm winds down, but the joys and rhythms of the garden endure. The workweek no longer builds to a frenzy that begins on a Thursday and doesn’t stop until the last farmers market is over on Sunday.

“It’s as much fun, except we can do it in the morning, the evening or not at all,” said Susan Planck. “And we can take naps any time we want.”

More from The Washington Post:

Where have all the butterflies gone?

The U.S. National Arboretum is breathing new life into an old plant

Five annuals to plant in late summer

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

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