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Saskatchewan plant scientist describes “challenging” 2009 season

February 11, 2010  By Myron Love

Canadian fruit and vegetable growers experienced quite the summer across the country during 2009, including unusual challenges for Prairie vegetable growers.

Canadian fruit and vegetable growers experienced quite the summer across the country during 2009, including unusual challenges for Prairie vegetable growers.

Dr. Doug Waterer



In his annual presentation to Saskatchewan growers during the 2009 Saskatchewan Green Trades Conference, Dr. Doug Waterer spoke about his department’s research during “the summer that wasn’t.

“The growing season was bad from the start,” said the University of Saskatchewan plant researcher. “We had record cold weather and the hits just kept on coming.”

He recalled instances of snow in July and blizzard conditions in October.

“It was a real struggle to get crops established,” Dr. Waterer said.  “In many cases, the season was lost because growers couldn’t get their crops in the ground.”

In his report on results from specific vegetable trials, Dr. Waterer began with the university’s four-year-old asparagus trials.

“Our previous asparagus trial in 1998 was wiped out by disease,” he said. “In our current trial, we have had an 80 per cent survival rate so far, but we are starting to see some of the 29 varieties slipping badly. Some of them are proving unsuitable for Saskatchewan winters and growing conditions.”

While Dr. Waterer says it is still too early for recommendations, the Guelph Millenium variety from Ontario is currently outperforming the other varieties. He noted that Guelph Millenium is well adapted to conditions in Saskatchewan, is affordable, is producing high yields and is of superior quality.

Dr. Waterer’s results with the Danvers carrot variety were also interesting. While most carrot varieties were glacially slow to emerge this past season – with some not emerging at all – the Danvers carrot showed vigorous growth and produced excellent yields, he explained. But it failed the taste test.

“The quality was awful,” Dr. Waterer said.  “The taste was uniformly bad.”

He believes there is potential for the variety in frozen mixed vegetables where they can’t be tasted and he advised growers not to over apply nitrogen to their carrot plantings as that increases the crop’s prospect of being infected with sclerotina.

The university’s parsnips preferred to stay below ground this year, Dr. Waterer noted. “Nothing came up,” he said. “We are sure the parsnips are waiting for next year to emerge.”

In corn trails this past season, Dr. Waterer’s department planted only Supersweet (SH2) varieties.  “The SH2 variety is the variety that is most susceptible to cold weather,” he said. “We couldn’t have picked a worse year to try this.”

The researchers planted the SH2 corn in late May. While – surprisingly – there was no problem with emergence, the corn did nothing after that for several weeks. “We had slow growth through August and had harvested 100 per cent of the corn by the end of September,” Dr. Waterer said. “There were quality issues due to the poor conditions and the plants were small. We were happy though that we were able to harvest any.”

The university’s 2008 garlic trial was wiped out by disease. For 2009, Dr. Waterer and his team selected healthy bulbs for planting. The new bulbs had an excellent over-winter survival rate, he noted, and there were no problems with them.

“It’s important to be confident in your planting material,” Dr. Waterer said. “When buying new material, check out the crop to make sure that it is clean. And use hot water treatments before planting garlic bulbs.”

Dr. Waterer observed that 2009 was a fabulous year for lettuce because it was so cool. “It was too good a year for lettuce,” he said. “We weren’t able to learn anything.”

But it was a brutal year for red onions, he said. It took forever for the plants to emerge and grow and none had matured by mid-October.

On the other hand, it was a great year for beets. Dr. Waterer reported that the university’s beets turned out beautifully with uniform colour and great flavour.

While the research plots of melons and most of the pumpkins didn’t turn out, the pickling cucumbers flourished. “We seeded the cucumbers into mulch in late May and harvested them twice weekly from July to October,” Dr. Waterer said.

The cucumber plants that flourished were grown under field cover. Those plants that weren’t under cover were pitiful until September, Dr. Waterer noted.

Turning to pest control, Dr. Waterer reported on the university’s experiments with alternatives to Lorsban for controlling root maggots. Lorsban is currently the only chemical registered for combating root maggots and government regulators are considering pulling it off the market – hence the search for alternatives. The study was conducted at four locations across Canada and in each trial, Lorsban was the only product that worked.

“We did some more work with tunnel material to enhance growing conditions,” Dr. Waterer said. “While overheating can be a problem on hot days, this year we didn’t have any hot days.”

The researchers experimented with different tunnel materials – clear perforated, clear non-perforated, white and green. “All types were beneficial this year because of the weather conditions,” Dr. Waterer said. 

All the covers kept the temperature inside 5 degrees warmer than the outside. The clear material kept temperatures 10 degrees above normal. “If we had had temperatures outside of over 30 degrees, it would have been too hot under the clear covers,” Dr. Waterer said.

Last year, he added, the melons thrived under the clear perforated covers while the red peppers did best under the white. This season, the clear was best for the melons again. The tomatoes, grown for the first time under cover, did very well.

“I have always been a fan of biodegradable mulch.” Dr. Waterer said. “The question at the end of the year is what to do with the plastic material. We have been using material made of cornstarch, which is affordable and seemed to be durable. This year however, the cornstarch plastic didn’t perform well at all. It fell apart in the spring. The problem, we concluded, is that we put it out too early – in mid-May – and it broke down and fell apart because of exposure to sunlight.”

Dr. Waterer commented that his research team is always looking for vegetables that thrive in high tunnels. “We thought that peppers would do well, but it was too hot for them in the high tunnels,” he said. “We found, however, that watermelon thrives in them. We were harvesting high quality melons from July right through to mid-October.”

He reported there was problem with late blight in tomatoes in different parts of Canada and the U.S. this season. The source, he said, was a big box retailer on the east coast.

For 2010, Dr. Waterer reported, his department is planning to plant more new cultivars, continue their root maggot control research and continue experimenting with crop covers and high tunnels.

“We are always open to ideas,” he said.

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