Root Crops in April – the Hungry Gap

Young Cylindra beets in early May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in April

We are in cold-hardiness zone 7a, with an average last frost of 4/29. Those in other climate zones can study our Root Crops in May or Root Crops in March for information more useful in their area.

Outdoors we can sow  carrots #4 & #5, parsnips, radishes #2, (last date 4/15, sow on the shoulders of a newly transplanted lettuce bed to save space), beets (last date 4/15, hand sown or with an EarthWay seeder Chard plate, 2 or 3 passes. 1 cup sows 360 ft/110m)

Here we can plant potatoes anytime in April.

It is too late for us to sow any root crops in the hoophouse. (Besides, we want tomatoes!)

Having good stored crops like these beets will feed you through the Hungry Gap.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in April

As in January, February and March in central Virginia, in most of April there are still no roots to harvest outdoors except overwintered parsnips and maybe carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish.  Radishes from the first outdoor sowing will be ready at the end of April. We can usually harvest radishes until the end of May. Our hoophouse radishes usually finish in early April. By then it is hot and any remaining radishes bolt.

From storage, if we still have them, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips.

This is the Hungry Gap (see Special Topic for April below)

Colorado Potato beetle late stage larva
Photo Pam Dawling

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in April

  • If you are growing your own sweet potato slips, cut 6-12” (15-30cm) slips daily and stand them in water. Once a week, plant rooted slips in 4” (10cm) flats.
  • Hill up potatoes when 6” (15cm) high. Cover half the vine. Repeat after 2 weeks. This deals well with weeds and gives the potatoes more soil to grow into.
  • Potato beetles: Use Spinosad [or Neem] once larvae are seen, if there are more than 50 adults/50 plants or more than 200 larvae/100 plants. If you have fewer, you can leave them alone. Spinosad: Spray when bees are not flying (early morning or late evening.) Shake well, 1-4 Tbsp/gall (1fl.oz=2Tbsp=30ml.) Approx 8-30 ml per liter. Repeat in 6 days. Clean and triple rinse the sprayer. Do not flush Spinosad into creeks or ponds.
  • Thin and weed carrots.
  • Mow cover crop mixes in late vegetable plots when rye or wheat heads up, to help legumes develop.
  • Take rowcover from turnips that were sown 3 or more weeks earlier, to use on newer and more tender crops.
  • Till beds you’ll plant in a week or two, as heavy rain may prevent tilling close to sowing time. My ideal is to till as deep as needed ahead of time, then do a superficial tilling or scuffle hoeing the day before planting. This gives the best weed control.
  • Spread compost on beds you’ll plant in 3 weeks or so, and till in the compost when the soil is not too wet, not too dry.
  • If exposed to 10 consecutive days below 45°F (7°C), celeriac will bolt.
  • Store spring and fall seeds (spinach, peas, beets) in a cool place for the summer.
Vates kale outdoors. An oleracea type, Vates is very cold-hardy.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Special Root Crop Topic for April in Central Virginia: the Hungry Gap

What is the Hungry Gap?

The Hungry Gap happens in temperate climates with four seasons. In winter the short day-length reduces plant growth, and when it’s cold, maybe damp, windy, and overcast, the rate of crop growth drops further. The Hungry Gap is the annual period of the shortfall in local fruit and vegetables. April is the leanest month of the year in northern temperate climates, and the period can extend from January to May. This may be a factor in the origin of the 40 days of Lent.

Spring is not the time of overflowing bounty you might expect – leaves are growing, but not much else. Depending on your particular climate, there may be some vegetables that are winter-hardy. Almost every vegetable lover yearns for more variety than that!

In the spring, any remaining winter vegetables are getting ready to bolt (produce flowers and seeds rather than more leaves). Growers and gardeners are enthusiastically sowing and transplanting new crops, but planting too early would be a sad mistake and it takes time before those new crops can be harvested. That gap between the last of the winter crops and the first of the early spring crops, is called the Hungry Gap.

It’s not a familiar term these days, because importing produce from warmer climates hides the reality. Vegetable consumption in much of the Western hemisphere has shifted from Medieval (leaves and roots) to Mediterranean (“ratatouille vegetables” and salads). Importing or long-distance hauling demands more energy usage, as does the refrigeration they often require in transit.

Also there has been a practice of growing vegetables with artificial heat and light. This is not ecological, as use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change. The food sector accounts for 30% of global energy consumption and produces about 20% of GHG emissions (see the 2011 FAO report). Most of this energy consumption comes from oil and gas in the form of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, on-farm machinery and food processing.

Sweet Potatoes in storage.
Photo Pam Dawling
Sustainable Ways to Bridge the Hungry Gap

How did people survive the hungry gap in times gone by, and what can we learn from those strategies? Eating in the hungry gap used to be both hard and uninspiring – a restricted diet with few options. Adding options involves advance planning and advance work.

  1. Use stored food, such as root crops, winter squash and pumpkins
  2. Preserve fruits and vegetables from other seasons. Consider jams, pickles, canning in jars, freezing, drying, salting and fermenting (think sauerkraut)
  3. Grow more winter-hardy crops that start regrowth early in the spring, and may be harvestable during the winter. Consider covering the rows with rowcover or polyethylene low tunnels.
  4. Grow more perennial crops, such as asparagus, rhubarb, sea kale and sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima, wild beet). Although they take several years to establish, they will then yield earlier in the year than crops grown from seed in spring. Asparagus and rhubarb provide new flavors early in the year and signal the change to come.

    Asparagus in early April.
    Credit Wren Vile
  5. Sow fast-growing cold-hardy crops as early as possible after the winter solstice, for example spring leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collards, fast cabbage varieties, and lettuce.
  6. Add crop protection in the form of rowcovers, low polyethylene tunnels (cloches), caterpillar tunnels, high tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels) to create a warmer environment, trapping heat and humidity and warming up the soil, providing earlier harvests. Protect early sowings of quick crops, like radishes, arugula, land cress, salad greens, and also the first few weeks of newly planted kale, collards, spinach, mizuna, pak choy).
  7. Forage sustainably for edible wild greens as a spring ‘tonic’, even if not a major item in your diet. The strong flavors provide a welcome change after repetitive winter vegetables, and a useful top-up to the supply of produce as stores run low. Spring is one of the best seasons for foraging, but you do have to reliably identify what you’re picking, so get yourself a good guide book or phone app. Ramps, nettles, violets, chickweed, dandelion, garlic mustard, and lamb’s quarters are some of the many wild greens available in spring. See Rustic Farm Life: Wild Spring Greens You Should Be Eating

    Ruby chard.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons
  8. Maximize the number of annual and biennial crops you grow that are in season during the Hungry Gap. Some are mentioned already. Here are more ideas: chard, globe artichokes, herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, kale (one variety is called “Hungry Gap” because it crops during this period. It was introduced to UK agriculture during WWll in 1941), leeks. If your winter climate is mild enough (zone 8 or 9): over-wintered Purple sprouting broccoli, and spring greens (immature close-spaced dark-green cabbages).

    Brassica oleracea ‘Hungry Gap’ – kale
    Photo Chiltern Seeds, UK
  9. Indoor gardening. Grow sprouts and microgreens. These don’t take much advance planning and can perk up a winter or spring meal. Microgreens grow in compost or on special “blankets”, but sprouts are generally grown in jars or trays. Pea shoots are an easy one to start with, and you can use dried peas from the supermarket. When sprouting it is important that you buy organic seeds, to be sure that they have not been treated with any chemicals. Rinse your sprouts twice a day, and keep everything clean.

Read more about the Hungry Gap

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbZfTAYDA88

https://theunconventionalgardener.com/blog/what-is-the-hungry-gap/

https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/spring-plate-eating-hungry-gap/

https://www.farmdrop.com/blog/hungry-gap-seasonal-british-produce/

This is the last post in the monthly series on root crops. You can see them all here:

Root Crops in May

Root Crops in June

Root Crops in July

Root Crops in August

Root Crops in September

Root Crops in October

Root Crops in November

Root Crops in December

Root Crops in January

Root Crops in February

Root Crops in March

Workhorse Crops for the Month

Next month I will start a new monthly series. Workhorses are crops that are reliable under a wide range of conditions, including weather, soil, date and other variables. Some are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops” like chard that stand in your garden until you need to harvest them. Part of my motivation for this series is to help all the “Covid-steaders” who started growing food during the pandemic and want to up their game without investing a lot more time. Part is to help established gardeners and growers who need to make a living while dealing with the changes the past year has brought to their markets and to our climate. We need some easier days!

 

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