This is my 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 and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as January.
At last the daylight is getting noticeably longer, although we still have very cold weather. We reach 10 hours of daylight on January 21, and 11 hours on February 20. In our hoophouse we are clearing crops before they bolt, and planting some quick crops before the warm weather ones go in in March and April. In the greenhouse we are starting seedlings and clearing lettuce that is thinking about bolting. Our seed orders are arriving and we are finishing up our various planting schedules and crop maps.
Workhorse Crops to Plant in February
We sow carrots in mid-February, and again at the end of February. Yes, they take a long time to emerge when the soil is still so cold. But it’s a task we can get done now, and won’t have to do later, when we are busier. Carrots take 50 days to emerge at 41˚F (5˚C), (although of course it will have warmed up some before 50 days pass!); 17 days at 50˚F(10˚C); 10 days at 59˚F (15˚C); 7 days at 68˚F (20˚C); 6 at 77˚F (25˚C); 5 at 86˚F (30˚C) and don’t try hotter than that!
We use an EarthWay seeder and the Light Carrot plate (although that still puts out lots of seed!) We can’t really justify the cost of a precision seeder like the Jang, for the amount we’d use it.
If you are planning to start a new asparagus patch, early spring is the best time to plant. This will give them as much time as possible that first year, to grow strong roots. The usual suggestion is to plant at least 10 crowns per diner.
Most growers purchase two-year-old crowns, although it is possible to grow your own asparagus from seed, if you can find seed of your preferred variety. The old OP varieties are still available, but newer all-male hybrids yield far more heavily, often more than twice as much. We chose Jersey Giant, a male hybrid resistant to asparagus rust and well-adapted to the mid-Atlantic. It produces big, tender, succulent spears each spring.
The best soil temperature for planting asparagus is 50°F (10°C) – planting in cold soil encourages disease and offers no advantage. Remove shipped asparagus roots from the box as soon as they arrive, and untie the bundles. Don’t water them. If you need to store the roots longer than two weeks, spread them in trays or crates, in a cool, fairly dry place, until planting conditions are right. You can read more about growing asparagus in Sustainable Market Farming, and my recent article in Growing for Market magazine.
Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse
In our greenhouse we have started a couple of flats of fast-maturing cabbage. We like Farao (60d) and Early Jersey Wakefield (63d). Both numbers are seed to harvest. Subtract 20 days if counting from transplanting to maturity.
We have already sown our kale and collards for outdoor spring crops, in our hoophouse. Here’s the info on that: On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed. We will transplant these outdoors as bare root transplants in mid-March.
We don’t sow our chard and leaf beet until 3/24, because we want them for summer greens, after the kale, collards, broccoli and Asian greens have all bolted. But you can start them earlier, if you want earlier harvests. I’ll say more next month about chard, but if you want to get a start sooner, know that the seed will germinate from 41°F (5°C) to 95°F (35°C), and the best temperature is 86°F (30°C), when it needs only 4 days to pop up.
Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in February
We do sow a few hoophouse greens successions during February, a row of snap peas, some lettuce mix, but nothing that qualifies as a Workhorse.
Workhorse Crops to Harvest in February
Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested outdoors here in February. About once per bed during each of the coldest months, January and February. We’ll be able to harvest those beds once a week each in March. 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.
Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one! I actually prefer to get all our carrots safely harvested and stored, rather than have them still in the ground, where more things can go wrong! We have had 3 nights in January down to 10°F (-12°C), and I don’t think even Deadon cabbage would survive that many cold nights! Some of our Tadorna leeks are looking quite damaged. We don’t usually have that problem.
Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in February
Bulls blood beet greens, chard, and some greens not in our Workhorse group, (turnip greens, Yukina Savoy, spinach) are still going strong. Our experimental carrots are still doing OK, although I’m not a fan of giving them hoophouse space for such a long time with no harvests. I notice I’m slipping into mentioning non-workhorses more often now the winter is biting us.
At last we can start harvesting our Russian kales in the hoophouse. We were late getting them established last fall, and growth has been slow. Now many of the other greens (Tokyo bekana, Napa cabbage, pak choy, the first tatsoi and the first mizuna) have all been eaten, we are very ready for the kale. Russian kale wilts easily and is best harvested into buckets as if a bouquet of flowers, with a little water in the bucket.
Workhorse Crops from storage in February
From storage in February we can eat carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash. Also frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.
Workhorse Crops Special Topics for February: Phenology
Certain natural phenomena are related to the accumulated warmth of the season (rather than, say, the day-length), and by paying attention to nature’s calendar you will be in sync with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.
You can learn when to plant by natural signs. For instance, we sow sweet corn when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. I got excited one weekend (April 10) when I saw wind-driven twigs on the ground with oak leaves definitely bigger than squirrels’ ears. But they were Red Oak, not White Oak.
Keeping your own phenology record is a useful guide to when to plant certain crops, and a way to track how fast the season is progressing right where you are. Phenology involves recording when certain wild and cultivated flowers bloom, seedlings emerge, or various insects are first seen. These natural events can substitute for Growing Degree Day calculations. Your phenology record will help build resilience in the face of climate change. Ours might be interesting to you, but unless you live in central Virginia, you can’t use our dates. You do need to make your own. This can be a great home-schooling project, or a crew I-Spy competition, or a calming end-of-day walk around your gardens.Phenology Record