Workhorse Crops for December

Multicolored chard from our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve entered the colder half the year for this monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops: asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash. These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions.

I hope this blogpost series will help you become more productive and profitable (if selling) as you go into winter. Maybe you gardened for the first time this year, or expanded production in spring (orders to seed companies suggest many people did!) Maybe you have less time at home than you expected when you started planting in spring. Winter brings a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, your crops, and your methods.

You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as November.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in December

If you are in a warmer climate than our zone 7a, you may still have the chance to plant garlic.  See Workhorse Crops for November.

Garlic scallions prepared for sale. Typepad.com

Garlic scallions

We could still plant garlic scallions in December. See Garlic Scallions and  October’s Workhorse Crops  post for information about planting garlic scallions (baby garlic plants).

Garlic scallions can be grown at many times of year. This is news to many of us! By planting later it is possible to extend the garlic scallion harvest period out later. It is important to plant them in conditions where they can grow some good roots before getting too cold. Roots can grow whenever the soil is not frozen. Tops grow whenever the air is above 40°F (4.5°C) Planting in a hoophouse in November or December could possibly provide earlier garlic scallions then planting outdoors in early November. Because the plants are growing faster in warmer conditions. I have not tried this myself yet.

Bulb formation and drying down of bulb garlic is controlled by daylength, but because you do not need bulbing and drying down, all sorts of dates are possible!

Yellow potato onions.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Potato Onions

We could plant small and medium-sized potato onions outdoors in December.  We have usually also prepared a bed and mulched it with hay, to plant the small potato onions in January. Click the links to get the details.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in December

In the hoophouse we now have all the space fully planted. We intend to do this by November 20 each year, or earlier. We are starting to plant a second round of crops, mostly successions of greens and radishes. We have already pulled our first radishes (which sound like they are sneaking their way into being classified as a workhorse crop!)

Unusually, this fall, we found ourselves with some open space during October and November. I am pulling together information on fast crops we could grow in future years, before the late November and early December crops.

Once we have our hoophouse fully planted, we replace any crop we harvest, keeping all the space fully used. See November’s information on Follow-On Crops, and Filler Greens (short rows of greens sown in October to fill unexpected spaces.

Vates kale – our winter outdoor favorite.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in December

We can still have plentiful quantities of workhorse crops to harvest outdoors: cabbage, carrots, chard, kale and collards, and also luscious hoophouse greens. Only four of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested outdoors in December, but the quantities are good, and we have the Racehorse Crop, spinach, too

We had our first frost of 2021 on November 3 – our latest first frost in the past fifteen years (approximately) has been November 15 2019.

Cabbage We harvest fall-planted cabbage from September 25 until November 30, or perhaps early December in milder years. Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature I’ve seen it survive.

Carrots can be harvested in December, if we didn’t finish the job in November and we don’t want to risk feeding voles by leaving the carrots in the ground over the winter.

Chard can still be harvested outdoors if we covered it with hoops and rowcover. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). We have succeeded in keeping chard alive outdoors right through the winter, if we cover it. This year, we have abandoned it, as we ate so much chard through the summer and got tired of it! The chard did very well, and we lacked other summer greens like stored spring cabbages, and fall broccoli.

Alabama Blue collards.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested in December. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow. Chard and senposai do OK with only 6 leaves left.

Hoophouse chard in December.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Workhorse harvests in December

We have started harvesting our hoophouse Bright Lights chard in small amounts, cutting the leaves into ribbons, and chopping the colorful stems, for salad mixes.

The Red Russian and White Russian kales are usually ready from early December. This year we suffered from poor germination (old seed!) and the later resows are still too small. We have plenty of other greens to eat, from outdoors, and the hoophouse senposai is on its second round of harvests, just one week after the first.

Workhorse Crops from storage in December

Storage crops start to come into their own in December as outdoor growth slows down. Besides the Workhorse Crops of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and garlic, there are many root crops. See my posts Root Crops for the Month. Use hardneck garlic first, as it stores for only for 4-6 months. Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months.

Know your winter squash! Use the ones with the shortest storage life first (and any damaged squash that won’t store longer). Acorn and other pepo types of winter squash store for 1-4 months; Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole pumpkin can easily store for a whole year at room temperature.

Our white potatoes were sorted two weeks after the harvest. This one sorting makes a lot of difference to the quality and quantity of potatoes we will be able to eat. After two weeks, very little further rotting starts up. We cool the root cellar down to 50F after the first month, then to 40F, airing once a week (or less if cooling is not needed).

Sweet potatoes stored in off-duty wood seed flats.
Credit Nina Gentle

Our sweet potatoes are fully cured and delicious. We grow 4 kinds: Georgia Jet and Beauregard in roughly equal amounts, to hedge our bets; and two unnamed varieties we call Bill Shane’s White and Jubilee, in small quantities simply to preserve the genetic diversity. Georgia Jet is a bit faster (90 days compared to 100 days) and usually yields a little better for us than Beauregard.  Some New York growers report problems with Georgia Jet due to soft rots and malformed roots. Most growers really like this variety. Beauregard has light rose, red-orange or copper skin, dark orange flesh, uniformly shaped roots. Georgia Jet has a skin that is red-purple. I sometimes find the roots hard to tell apart when we have accidentally mixed them.

Garlic shoots poking through the mulch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for December

One task for us this month is to Free Trapped Garlic Shoots

14-16 days after planting, when we can see that more than half of the shoots have emerged, we free any garlic shoots trapped under particularly thick clumps of mulch. We investigate the spots where there should be a plant but isn’t. Ours are planted 5” (13 cm) apart. If we find garlic tops, we simply leave part of them exposed to the light. They will sort themselves out. We don’t leave any soil exposed, because we don’t want weeds to grow. This needs to be a fast-moving, efficient task, as there are thousands of plants. It’s also important to be patient and optimistic, and not start this job too early. The goal is to free the shoots that wouldn’t make it out unaided. Not to prematurely expose them all.

In December we continue Planning, including insurance crops. We calculate how much seed to buy, browse the catalogs, balancing trying different varieties on a small scale, and largely sticking to known successful varieties. See my recent post Reading Between the Lines in the Seed Catalogs. We hope to get our seed orders placed before the end of December. Since the Covid pandemic, lots more people have started growing food. This has led to some seed shortages. So if your heart is set on certain crops or certain varieties, order early to avoid disappointment. And to spread out the massive workload that the people working packing and shipping your seeds are dealing with. Appreciate them!

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