In this monthly series, I have chosen 14 Workhorse Crops (including two pairs) to focus on until April 2022: These are crops that we can rely on under a wide range of conditions. Some Workhorse Crops are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops”, some are especially profitable (for those growing for market), and watermelons are simply the circus pony – we all need fun!
I hope this series will help growers become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as we expand our lives again. Perhaps you don’t have as much time at home as last year, but no need to give up growing your own food, just make some smart choices of less time-consuming crops and growing methods.
See my book review of McCrate and Halm’s High Yield Vegetable Gardening for ideas on labor-saving gardening methods
Workhorse Crops to Plant in July
In July here in central Virginia, the heat strikes hard, and the daylight has started to get a tiny bit shorter. This month we reach the peak of the year – next month we will really need to plan and execute our plans for a fall and winter garden. Most of our work in July is harvesting and weed control. In July we can plant 7 of our 14 Workhorse Crops, including the two pairs. It’s too late for asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, and winter squash.
July’s Last Chance Sowings – (more Last Chances in August).
We sow our last edamame 7/14 and our last sweet corn 7/16. We sow our last bush green beans 8/1-8/3, and zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers by 8/5 at the latest. If you are in a colder climate than ours, with a first frost earlier than our October 14, your last sowings of beans, zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers will be in July.
In July we still have time to sow fall crops that need 30-50 days to maturity, if we want to harvest them between mid-September and mid-October. For crops to harvest from late September to late October, we have time for those that take 30-70 days.
Beans: We sow bush beans every few weeks to keep up supplies of tender beautiful beans. See June’s Special Topic section for info about Succession Planting, to help you determine when and how often to sow beans, and how we control Mexican Bean Beetles that used to destroy our bean plantings. Our workhorse green bush bean is Provider. Bush Blue Lake comes a close second, and we often alternate them, with Provider for the 1st, 3rd, 5th sowings and Blue Lake for the 2nd and 4th. Provider is a little bit more cold-tolerant, and a little faster than Bush Blue Lake, at 50 days compared to 55.
Cabbage: Most brassicas will germinate fast at 86°F (30°C). The challenge is keeping the soil moist. For fall crops, we use an outdoor nursery seedbed and bare root transplants, because this works best for us. Having the seedlings directly in the soil “drought-proofs” them to some extent; they can form deep roots and don’t dry out so fast. Other people might prefer to sow in flats.
To avoid flea beetles and harlequin bugs, we cover the beds until the plants are big enough to stand up for themselves against “pest bullying”. We like ProtekNet insect mesh on wire hoops. Overly thick rowcover or rowcover resting directly on the plants can make the seedlings more likely to die of fungal diseases in hot weather – good airflow is vital.
We aim to transplant most brassicas at four true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing). In hot weather, use younger transplants than you would in spring, because larger plants can wilt from high transpiration losses. If we find ourselves transplanting older plants, we remove a couple of the older leaves to reduce these losses.
We sow cabbage (and broccoli, and some Asian greens to transplant mid-late July) in June and July. August is too late for us to start those.
Carrots: After May we hope not to need to sow more until the beginning of August. We have just finished harvesting our spring carrots and have them bagged in the walk-in cooler. Carrots grown in hot weather don’t taste that good, but home-grown hot weather carrots are still better than ancient carrots from thousands of miles away. If we have not grown enough carrots by the end of May to see us through to October, we sow in June, and even July if we must. We shade the beds.
Chard: Swiss chard can be sown here in July or August, for a nice fall harvest. It germinates best at 85°F (29°C). It grows big leaves within 50 days of sowing, and smaller ones after only 35 days. Chard is not plagued by flea beetles, and does not have problems germinating in hot weather like spinach does. Chard is the poster-child insurance crop!
We use chard for fresh greens in summer, transplanted into a hay mulch in late April. Organic mulches help keep the soil cool during hot weather, so are very helpful for leafy greens. This crop will be in the ground until mid-winter, and mulch will keep back most of the weeds.
Remember, chard is biennial, and will not bolt the first year (unless stressed by lack of water). I’ve noticed the red chards bolt more easily than the green ones. I suppose red crops are a bit stressed already, as they are short of chlorophyll, compared to the green ones, making photosynthesis harder work.
Sweet corn: we make 6 sowings of sweet corn, to harvest from July 4 to mid-October.
To calculate the last worthwhile sowing date, add the number of days to maturity and the length of the harvest window (7-14 days), and subtract this number from your average first frost date. For our 10/14 frost date, using an 80-day corn as an example, 80+7=87 days, brings us back to July 19 for our final sowing date. In practice, because corn matures faster in summer than in spring, this calculation gives you a little wiggle room in case the first frost is earlier than average. You could add a little more wiggle-room to be more sure. We make our last sowing on July 16, when there are not enough warm days left in the season to mature another sowing.
Kale and collards We sow 6 beds of kale, two each, every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. Often we’ll get patchy emergence and end up transplanting plants from one bed or one end of a bed to fill out the blank areas. If your climate is a colder zone than ours, you will be sowing kale and collards in July.
Zucchini (courgettes) and summer squash: another crop type that we succession sow, to get a continuous supply. We make five or six plantings, each one half yellow squash (Zephyr, Gentry) and half zucchini (TenderGrey, Noche, Golden Glory). Now the soil is warm (60°F/15.5°C), we direct sow. The time from sowing to harvest is only around 42-54 days. 8/5 is our last sowing date for zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers. We like Noche zucchini for a disease-resistant zucchini variety (diseases are worse here later in summer).
After sowing, we hoop and cover the row with insect netting (rowcover works if it has no big holes). We have many bugs that like these plants, especially the striped cucumber beetles, so we keep the rows covered until female flowers appear. At that point we need the service of the pollinators, unless the squash is parthenocarpic (sets fruit without pollination). We pack away the covers, hoe and thin the squash to 24” (60 cm). It would be better to thin sooner, but we rarely find the time.
Workhorse Crops to Harvest in July
Nine of our 14 workhorses can be harvested in July
Beans from early July/late June,
Cabbage is ready here from late May until mid-July. We store enough to feed us until we start harvesting fall cabbage. For cabbage to store to eat over the summer, cut with a strong knife and set it upside down on the nest of leaves to dry a little. Come back along the row with a net or plastic bag and gather up the storage quality cabbages to refrigerate.
Sweet corn: Harvest before daybreak for best flavor, because the sugars manufactured in the plant the day before become concentrated during the night. We’re not that dedicated. We harvest ours in the morning, and hurry it to the walk-in cooler.
Harvest may start 18-24 days after half the ear silks show, if the weather has been reasonably warm. Judging corn’s ripeness is a skill, based on information from many of the senses. The first sign we look for is brown dead silks. If the ear has passed that test, we investigate further. All ears should look and feel plump and rounded to the tip. Each variety is a little different, so close attention is needed. Some varieties exhibit “flagging” of the ear, meaning it leans away from the stalk as it matures and gets heavier. New crew can test for ripeness by opening the side of the husk with thumb nails, and puncturing a kernel: the kernels should look filled-out and squarish, not round and pearly; the juice should be milky, not watery or doughy. The advantage of opening the side of the husks is that it is possible to close the gap if the ear is not ripe, without risk of collecting dew or rainfall. If the ear is ripe, we bend it downwards, give it a quarter-turn twist, and then pull up away from the plant.
We harvest every other day, which balances getting the amount we need with not spending more time than needed picking. Such a schedule can work well for CSA farms. Other growers could well need to harvest every day, if daily fresh corn is what your market needs. Leaving a three-day gap risks poor quality starchy ears and a lower total yield.
Take steps to keep the crop cool while harvesting. Never leave buckets of corn out in the sun. Even at room temperature, harvested OP ears lose half their sweetness in 24 hours.
After harvest, cool the corn quickly. Hydrocool if you have a large operation: drench or immerse the crop in near-freezing water. Otherwise, simply refrigerate and keep the corn cool until it reaches the consumer.
Carrots perhaps, although we do intend to get all our spring carrots harvested and stored before the weather gets very hot.
Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. Simply snap or cut off some outer leaves and stand them in a bucket with a little water until you cook them. For sustainable harvesting levels, we use the standard leafy green mnemonic “8 for later” meaning that we make sure to leave at least eight of the inner leaves on each plant, as we harvest the outer leaves. With chard, we can take a couple more than this, but we don’t want to exhaust our workhorses!
Garlic in the north might get harvested in July, but here in the mid-Atlantic ours has been curing for several weeks and is now ready for snipping, sorting and storing. I wrote about garlic recently. Several people have written to ask about the nylon netting in our photos in those posts. We don’t remember where we got it. The sides of the squares/diamonds are about 1.5”. A reader sent this photo and she is using Tenax fencing. It’s sold for deer fencing and is very strong.
Potatoes, if planted in March, will be ready to harvest this month. If the tops have died, dig up a few samples and see if the skins rub off, or if they have thickened up enough for storage. It’s fine to dig some for immediate use, but for long-term storage, they need thick skins. This usually takes two weeks after the tops die. You can hurry up the process by mowing the tops to bring growth to an end. Then wait two weeks and test them. I wrote about potato harvest last year.
Tomatoes are ready to harvest outdoors now. Wait for the leaves to dry from rain or dew, before touching the plants. To minimize the spread of fungal diseases. Lightly press the bottom of the tomato to make sure it is soft enough to be fully ripe. Snap the tomato off at the knuckle, so that the plant gets the signal the fruit has gone, and will ripen more.
Zucchini and summer squash in our climate need harvesting every day, if we are going to avoid blimps. Summer squash can be twisted off the plants, but zucchini need to be cut. The hairs on the leaves, combined with sweat, can cause unpleasant itchiness. Wear long sleeves or make special sleeves for this job that are not attached to any particular shirt. Make a casing and insert elastic around the top edge (and the bottom, if there are no cuffs). These sleeves can be bought, but everyone probably has an old shirt and could make their own.
We harvest every day to the fall frost (or beyond if we remember to cover that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights.).
From storage: carrots and potatoes.
Workhorse Crops Special Topics:
Hunting Hornworms on tomatoes
Having determined there is a hornworm in the vicinity, the next task is to find it. They can grow to be 4″ caterpillars. You’d think it would be easy – a big striped caterpillar like that. Not so! They are the exact same shade of green as tomato leaves. Hornworms can look remarkably similar to curled tomato leaves. The white stripes mimic the veins on the undersides of the leaves.
When I find some signs, I gaze at the area, looking for discrepancies in the pattern – bare stems with lumps on them. Usually the caterpillar is on the underside of a chewed stem, and often (but not always) they have their heads raised. When you find one, get a firm grip, pull it off the plant (they have strong legs which hold on tight), drop it on the ground and stomp on it. The skins are quite thick.
If I still can’t see the worm, I stand still and sway a bit from side to side, viewing the plant from different perspectives. It helps if the top of the plant is back-lit, but I do always check both sides of the row, no matter where the sun is. Knowing the signs of hornworm grazing can save you time looking everywhere. Focus your attention on where you are most likely to find them, and you will get the most success in the least time.
Tomato string weaving
(See my Mother Earth News blogpost How and when to string-weave tomatoes)
String-weaving (also known as basket-weaving or Florida string weaving) is an easy way to support lots of tomato plants. This method is ideal for long rows,. All you have to store over the winter are the stakes. No bulky cages or rolls of wire mesh. We have used it for all kinds of tomatoes, and some other crops.
The ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production includes a comparison of different tomato support systems. You can also see this on the eXtension page Training Systems and Pruning in Organic Tomato Production
String-weaving comes equal-best or second best in almost all categories: yield, earliness, fruit size, quality, pest control and protection from sunburn. It is worst as far as labor cost, although it doesn’t seem so bad, as the labor is spread out through the season. Trellising with a high wire between posts, and strings to wind each plant around, comes out best for earliness, fruit size and pest control (but worst for cracking, and thus not so good for marketable yield). Cages are best for marketable yield (so people who only grow relatively few plants could choose that method). But caged tomatoes do poorly on earliness and fruit size. The cheapest support system is none at all – sprawing the plants on the ground. But the fruit quality and quantity is poor, (pests, rotting, cracking and sunburn reduce potential yields).
Tools for string weaving
Put tomato stakes in soon after planting, while the soil is still soft, and you can see where the drip tape is. We use 6’ (1.8 m) metal T-posts. Some people put an extra stake at an angle tied to the end stakes as a brace. Set one T-post after every two plants along the row. Our stringing tool made is a 2’ (30 cm) length of wood, with a hole drilled through near each end. Twine is threaded through one hole and back out the other. A length of plastic pipe could also be used (pipe doesn’t need holes drilled, as the twine can be threaded down through the pipe). The twine moves through the tool freely. The tool serves as an extension of the worker’s arm, to get the twine over tall stakes, and you can give it a quarter turn to pull the twine tight. For maximum efficiency, keep the tool in your hand all the time.
Our variation on string-weaving looks quite like the drawing from the Extension Service. We have a couple of tweaks that make string-weaving work even better. Our first trick is to park the bale of twine in a bucket at the beginning of the row and leave it there. No need to lug it with you! Stand between the working end of the twine and the slack being pulled out of the bucket – get yourself inside the loop when you start, to avoid tangles. The spare twine will be running out behind you as you work the first side of the row. You’ll use it for the return journey.
Tomato string-weaving step-by-step:
- When the plants are 12” (30cm) tall, tie the twine onto an end stake, about 8-10” (20-25 cm) above the ground.
- Pass the twine in front of two plants and the next stake and wrap the twine around the back of the stake, pull it tight, and twist the tool to help tighten it.
- Next, here’s our second trick: use the thumb or forefinger of your other (non-tool-holding) hand on the crossover to keep it tight, and loop the twine around the stake again, making sure that the second loop ends up below the first. This locks the twine so that if you let go, or later on a groundhog chews through your twine, the whole row doesn’t slacken.
- Continue along the row to the end, then take the tool round to the other side wrapping the twine round the end post.
- Weave back along the other side of the same row, putting a row of twine at the same level as on the first side. You will need to flip the twine that was behind you on the first side over to your new working side as you need it. Once you reach the end, tie off the twine and cut it.
Close view of coming back on the second side of string-weaving.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
- You’ll see that you never actually wrap twine around a tomato plant, so there no injury from tight twine. The plants are simply held between two fences of twine that you “build” by making a new round once-a-week as the plants grow (every 8” (20 cm) up the stakes).
- At the end of the season, cut the twine each side of each post, and pull it out, then remove the stakes and till in the tomato plants.