Workhorse Crops for May

Young bush bean plants.
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops for May

Workhorses crops 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, some are especially profitable (for those growing for market).

I’ve chosen 14 crops (including two pairs) to focus on in the next 12 months, ending April 2022: Asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, garlic, kale and collards, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini and summer squash.

My motivation for this series is to help all who want to be more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as other parts of our lives expand again.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in May

May is a busy planting month here in central Virginia and probably most places in the northern hemisphere. Ten of our 14 Workhorse Crops can be planted once frosts are behind us.

Beans: We grow bush beans because we don’t like putting up trellises. In the past we had uncontrolled Mexican Bean Beetles that destroyed slower-to-mature pole beans. We found we could get crops of bush beans faster and sow them every few weeks or so to get a good supply of presentable beans every couple of days. Click this link to read about soaking bean seed, using inoculant, sowing through biodegradable plastic mulch using a jig, sowing sunflowers in our bean rows as place-markers when harvesting. See my phenology post for information on when it’s warm enough to start sowing beans (and other crops) where you are.

Carrots: I wrote a lot about carrots in the past year, when the monthly series was on root crops. See this post on preparing beds for sowing carrots, and weeding and thinning. Check out this post on flame-weeding, if you plan lots of carrot-growing!

Multicolored chard. Wren Vile

Chard: A great insurance crop – it provides leafy greens when you need them, and you can ignore it when you have plenty of other vegetables! As a biennial, chard will not bolt the first year (unless stressed by lack of water). We use chard for fresh greens in summer, when kale, collards, broccoli and cabbage from the spring have long gone. Because we don’t need chard until late May, we don’t sow until late March. We transplant in late April, into a hay mulch. This crop will be in the ground until mid-winter, and mulch will keep back most of the weeds. You could, of course, sow chard earlier if you want to eat it earlier. We also grow chard through the winter in our hoophouse, where it feeds us during the Hungry Gap.

Potatoes: I wrote a special series on potatoes last year. Click the link to access the whole series, starting with planting in April. Here we plant in March and June. You can plant at any date in between, so long as you have 80 days until your first frost. If time is a bit short, choose a fast-maturing variety (or be satisfied with small potatoes that won’t store).

Sweet corn: we make 6 sowings of sweet corn, to harvest from July 4 to mid-October. Start planting sweet corn when the leaves of the white oak are as big as squirrel’s ears. Click the link to check our planting dates, and to read about our first sowing of the year, catching raccoons and skunks, avoiding mixing types of corn and to view my slide show on succession planting. There’s a confusing aspect of hybrid corn varieties: if you plant a mixture of different genotypes, it can lead to starchy unpleasant-flavored corn. Also don’t plant Indian corn, popcorn or any kind of flint or dent corn within 600′ (180 m) of your sweet corn. For this reason we grow only sweet corn in our garden.

Our first sweet corn of the season.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sweet potatoes: I wrote about planting sweet potatoes in 2020. Modern varieties of sweet potatoes grow to a good size in as little as 90 days, so they are not just for the South! The further north you are, the longer the daylight at midsummer and the more photosynthesizing the plants can do. I have known people grow sweet potatoes in hoophouses if their climate isn’t warm enough outdoors. This can fit with winter use of the hoophouse for greens and roots. My book Sustainable Market Farming contains a whole chapter on this crop, including growing your own slips, but it’s too late to start that this year. Wait for the soil to warm before planting out your sweet potato slips. We plant ours a couple of weeks after the last frost, around the time we transplant peppers and okra.

Tomatoes: We plant out our main crop at the very beginning of May, unless the weather is too cold. To my surprise, I find I haven’t written much about transplanting tomatoes outdoors. Here’s a post about planting tomatoes in our hoophouse. We use the same techniques in the hoophouse and outdoors. We transplant one row of tomatoes down the centerline of a 4ft (1.2 m) bed, 2ft (60 cm) apart. Outdoors, once the weather has settled so that we’re confident we won’t need rowcover any more, we stake and stringweave. We install a steel T-post every two plants (4ft /1.2 m) apart and start stringweaving when the plants are about 12ins (30 cm) tall. I’ll say more about stringweaving later in the year.

Watermelon transplants in a Winstrip plug flat. Watermelons give earlier harvests from transplants, and plants in plug flats transplant easier then from open flats.
Photo Pam Dawling

Watermelons: Watermelon growing isn’t easy, but the rewards are so wonderful, that I gave watermelon a “Circus Pony” place among the workhorses! We transplant our watermelons, to get ripe ones as early as possible. Melons are tricky to transplant, as the roots don’t do well if disturbed. We have successfully used soil blocks, and these days we use Winstrip 50-cell trays. Watermelons grow very well on black plastic mulch, which warms the soil as well as keeping weeds at bay. The first year we switched from using hay mulch to biodegradable plastic mulch, we were astounded to get ripe melons a full month earlier!

It’s important to keep the little seedlings in the greenhouse warm and in very good light, and away from drafts. Be careful not to overwater. They can keel over very quickly and once the stem collapses, remove that seedling before others die too. The goal is short stems!

When you transplant, get the start out of the flat and into the ground as quickly as possible with as little root damage as you can manage. This is not a crop where one person plops the plants out down the bed and someone follows planting them! Make the hole in the soil (through the plastic if you’re using that), by wiggling the trowel from side to side. Don’t dig a hole as if you are in a sand box, with a spoil heap at the side. Just form a space the right depth to get the whole of the stem in the ground.

Next gently pop the transplant out of the flat, perhaps using a table knife down the side of the cell. Push up from underneath. If all goes well, you’ll have the plant in a little block of soil (yes, like a soil block). Slide the transplant into the hole. You want all the leaves above ground, all the roots and stem in the ground. If the hole is too deep, lift the transplant carefully and scrape some soil into the hole. You don’t want to end up with the plant in a dip, as this can rot the stem. If the hole is not deep enough, you can to some extent hill up soil around the stem to protect it. You don’t want any of that fragile stem visible!

Water the day before, and one hour before transplanting, to help the soil hold together, and so that the plant has some reserves of water to see it through the initial shock of being set out. As you are transplanting, pause and water newly set plants every 20 minutes or so. Afterwards, water the whole planting and repeat on the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th days and once a week after that.

Winter squash: By contrast, winter squash are very easy, and they store for months at room temperature. A true workhorse. We direct sow at the end of May, with the goal of harvesting in September and October, the last ones making Halloween lanterns. Soil should be at least 60°F (15.5°C), and all danger of frost should be past.

Young squash plant.
Pam Dawling

We have grown about 400ft (120 m) for 100 people, and mostly focus on Butternuts, Moschata types that grow best where we are and store longest. This is the type to focus on if you want trouble-free squash, with no damage from borers or cucumber beetles. The tougher stems are better able to repel invaders. They need warm growing temperatures above 60°F (16°C). As well as Waltham Butternuts, we include the large Cheese pumpkin, the long-storing Seminole, and the gigantic Tahitian Butternut. We also grow a couple of Maxima squashes which store quite well:  Cha-cha kabocha, and the large blue Jarrahdale, which have relatively high resistance to squash bugs compared to others in this group. Red Kuri, Festival (sweet dumpling type) and the New England Pie pumpkin are Pepo squashes, suitable for storing a few weeks only. (Pumpkins are squashes.) We grow some of these because they are sooner to harvest. Really they are more of a fall squash than a winter squash.

Winter squash do need a lot of space for each plant. This can mean a lot of hoeing until the vines spread, or mulch. Some can take 90-120 days to reach maturity, so plan carefully to be sure of getting a harvest. For dryland farming, without irrigation, it is important not to move the vines to new positions: the dew and rain drips from the leaf edges encourage root growth directly below the vines (where they get the most water and shade).

Sow 0.5”-1” (1-2 cm) deep. Either “station sow” 2 or 3 seeds at the desired final spacing, or make a drill and sow seeds 6” (15 cm) apart. There are various stick planters and jab planters that can be used for this kind of station sowing. Thin later. Rows will need to be 6’ (1.8 m) apart, or more. 9’ (2.7 m) between rows for the vining ones. Some growers plant in a square pattern so that spaces between rows can be mechanically cultivated in both directions. Bush varieties take less space than the vining types, and rows can be 4’ (1.2 m) apart.

You can transplant winter squash if you need to. We did this one year after our fields flooded. We started seeds in cell packs a week before our usual sowing date of 5/25. It worked just fine.

Summer squash plants under insect netting.
Pam Dawling

Zucchini (courgettes) and summer squash: Zucchini is a subset of summer squash. These are easy to grow, fast to produce warm weather crops. We make a succession of five or six plantings each year, so that we can harvest every day. Each sowing is half a yellow squash (Zephyr, Gentry) and half a zucchini (TenderGrey, Noche, Golden Glory). We grow our earliest squash in the hoophouse, setting out transplants at the beginning of April. Our first outdoor crop is also from transplants. After that, the soil is warm enough to direct sow – 60°F (15.5°C).

After transplanting or sowing, we hoop and cover the row with insect netting (rowcover also 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). At that point 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.

Zucchini and summer squash are another crop type that we succession sow, to get a continuous supply. More about succession planting another time. The time from sowing to harvest is only around 50 days.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in May

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons

Asparagus can be harvested if you have a patch. If not start to prepare a patch to plant out one-year crowns next early spring. Remove all perennial weeds while growing a series of cover crops. If you have asparagus, you probably know to snap off at ground level all the spears above a certain length. We chose 7” (18 cm). Do this every day for the 8-week harvest period. Daily harvest will also remove asparagus beetle eggs, controlling the pest level.

A bed of Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage in mid-May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cabbage can be ready from late May, if you made an early sowing of fast-maturing varieties. Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield can take only 60 days.

Carrots can be ready from late May, if you sowed some in mid-late February

Chard is ready for harvest from late May (earlier if sown earlier), see above.

Harvesting garlic scapes in May
Photo by Wren Vile

Garlic scapes appear in hardneck garlic plants. Here it is also an indicator that our garlic will be ready to harvest in three weeks.

Kale and collards can be harvested until they are bolting, as long as the flavor is acceptable. Read more about bolting here.

Zucchini and summer squash from mid-May,

From storage: carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash

Workhorse Crops Special Topic: Deciding Which Vegetable Crops to Grow

Here’s a slideshow to help you decide which crops to grow. Some of the points are for commercial growers, some apply to anyone growing vegetable crops.

Deciding Which Vegetable Crops to Grow, Pam Dawling

Vegetable Seed Germination Temperatures and Phenology

Summer Lettuce Nursery Seedbed with Concept, De Morges Braun, New Red Fire and Loma lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire. Lettuces are impossible to germinate if the soil is too hot. We use shadecloth (folded over on the right), a soil thermometer and ice cubes.

Vegetable Seed Germination Temperatures

Here is a table of vegetable seed germination temperatures. These apply to soil temperatures when you sow directly in the ground, and to air temperatures when you sow indoors in small containers. If your indoor air temperature is not warm enough when you want to sow your chosen crop (watermelons, anyone?) you can make a small warm place, or use a professional heat mat, or, for a small scale, germinate seeds in an instant pot! If you have one of these handy cooking devices, check the lowest setting. Perhaps labeled for making yogurt, it might be 91°F (33°C). Look at my chart below and see if your seeds will germinate at that temperature. You’ll have to experiment for the seeds which germinate well at 86°F (30°C) but not at 95°F (35°C). Don’t try this with spinach or lettuce! You might be surprised to see that some cool weather crops, like broccoli and cabbage, can germinate just fine at high temperatures!

You can see my chart is a work in progress, so if you can add any info, please leave a comment on this post. Bold type indicates the best temperature for that vegetable seed. The numbers indicate how many days it takes that seed to germinate at the temperature at the head of the column. Where I don’t know the number of days, I have put “Yes” if it does germinate at that temperature, “no” if I think it doesn’t and a question mark where I plain don’t know. I would love to know, so if you can resolve the uncertainties, please speak up! I’ve also used the words “best’, “min” and “max” which I hope are self-evident.

Vegetable seed germination

 

Ice cubes over newly sown lettuce seed, to help germination in hot weather. Shadecloth is folded open on the left. Photo Bell Oaks

Soil Thermometers

Soil thermometer.
Photo by Green Living/Taylor

To measure the temperature of the soil outdoors, I recommend a dial-type soil thermometer. Ignore the vague guidelines on Min/Optimal/Max and use the table above. The usual practice is to check the temperature at 9am each day, and if you are unsure, check again the next day. In some cases it is best to get 4 consecutive days of suitable temperatures, or even (in spring!) a few days of rising temperatures.

Harbinger weeds of spring and fall

Flowering Purple (or Red) Dead Nettle, with honeybee.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

The progress of emergence of different weeds in the spring shows us how quickly the soil is warming up. I wrote about that here. In that post you can see photos of flowering chickweed, purple dead nettle, and henbit.

Chickweed seedling.
Photo from UC IPM Weed Gallery

In the fall we will be waiting for the soil to cool enough to sow spinach. I have a blog post about this here, and also photos of those three weeds as seedlings, which is what we are looking for in the fall, as an indication that the soil has cooled down enough for them (and spinach!) to germinate.

Phenology

I have a post about phenology here.You can read some of the details of 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 this past 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.

The chart in that 2013 post has now got corrupted (at least it has on my screen), so here is a pdf

Phenology Record

 

A new bean bed with sunflower landmarks. When lilac is in full bloom, plant beans, squash, corn.
Photo Pam Dawling

Phenology records are 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. 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 timetable you will be in accord with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.

Keeping your own 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.

Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021

Our pond iced over.
Photo Ezra Freeman

Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021

I keep records of how well our crops do in the colder season, both outdoors and in our double-layer hoophouse. I note each increasingly cold minimum temperature and when the various crops die of cold, to fine-tune our planning for next year. We are in zone 7a, with an average annual minimum temperature of 0-5°F (-18°C to -15°C).

The winter 2020-2021 was mild, with our lowest temperature being a single late January night at 10°F (-12°C). We had one night at 11°F (-12°C) one at 17°F (-8°C), three at 18°F (-8°C also) and one at 19°F (-7°C). very little snow or ice. Similar to temperatures in the 2019-2020 winter.

The winter of 2018-2019 had lowest temperatures of 6°F (-14°C) in late January 2019, 8°F (-13°C) in December 2018 and a couple of 11°F (-12°C). In early January 2018, we had some extremely cold temperatures of -8°F and -9°F (-22°C and -23°C). Averaging our winter low over those four winters 2017-2021 gives 4.8°F (-15°C), within the zone 7a range.

Georgia Cabbage Collards, good down to 20F (-7C) Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

New Info this winter

I’ve added in some temperatures for collard varieties (Georgia Cabbage collards, McCormack’s Green Glaze, variegated collards) from the Heirloom Collards Project, and also gained some info on spinach (Long Standing Bloomsdale), kales (Rainbow Mix Lacinato) and mustards (Chinese Thick-Stem) from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I’ve added in their suggestions on cold-tolerant early spring lettuces, Crawford, Simpson Elite, Susan’s Red Bibb and Swordleaf.

My results from other years still hold up.

Swordleaf lettuce on the right with another lettuce and radishes in spring.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Using the List

Unless otherwise stated, these are killing temperatures of crops outdoors without any rowcover. All greens do a lot better with protection against cold drying winds. Note that repeated cold temperatures can kill crops that can survive a single dip to a low temperature, and that cold winds, or cold wet weather can destroy plants quicker than simple cold. Crops get more damage when the weather switches suddenly from warm to cold. If the temperature drops 5 or more Fahrenheit degrees (about 3 C degrees) from recent temperatures, there can be cold damage. The weatherman in Raleigh, NC says it needs 3 hours at the critical temperature to do damage. Your own experience with your soils, microclimates and rain levels may lead you to use different temperatures in your crop planning.

Reflect spinach in the open got damaged but not killed at -9F.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoor killing temperatures of crops (unprotected unless stated)

35°F (2°C):  Basil.

32°F (0°C):  Bush beans, some cauliflower curds, corn, cowpeas, cucumbers, eggplant, limas, melons, okra, some pak choy, peanuts, peppers, potato vines, squash vines, sweet potato vines, tomatoes.

27°F (-3°C): Many cabbage varieties, Sugarloaf chicory (takes only light frosts).

25°F (-4°C): Some cabbage, chervil, Belgian Witloof chicory roots for chicons, and hearts, Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), dill (Fernleaf), some fava beans (Windsor), annual fennel, some mustards (Red Giant, Southern Curled) and Asian greens (Maruba Santoh, mizuna, most pak choy, Tokyo Bekana), onion scallions (some are much more hardy), radicchio, rhubarb stems and leaves.

22°F (-6°C): Some arugula (some varieties are hardier), Bright Lights chard, endive (Escarole may be a little more frost-hardy than Frisée), large leaves of lettuce (protected hearts and small plants will survive colder temperatures).

20°F (-7°C): Some beets (Bulls Blood, Chioggia,), broccoli heads (maybe OK to 15°F (-9.5°C)), some Brussels sprouts, some cabbages (the insides may still be good even if the outer leaves are damaged), some cauliflower varieties, celeriac, celtuce (stem lettuce), some collards (Georgia Cabbage Collards, variegated collards), some head lettuce, some mustards/Asian greens (Tendergreen, Tyfon Holland greens), flat leaf parsley, radicchio (both Treviso and Chioggia), radishes (Cherry Belle), most turnips (Noir d’Hiver is the most cold-tolerant variety).

Large oat plants will get serious cold damage. Oats seedlings die at 17°F (-8°C)

Canadian (spring) field peas are hardy to 10-20°F (-12 to -7°C).

Ruby chard, good down to 15°F (-9.5°C). hardier than Bright Lights, but less hardy than green chard varieties.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

15°F (-9.5°C): Some beets (Albina Verduna, Lutz Winterkeeper), beet leaves, some broccoli and cauliflower leaves, some cabbage (Kaitlin, Tribute), covered celery (Ventura), red chard, cilantro, fava beans (Aquadulce Claudia), Red Russian and White Russian kales, kohlrabi, some lettuce, especially medium-sized plants with 4-10 leaves (Marvel of Four Seasons, Olga, Rouge d’hiver, Tango, Winter Density), curly leaf parsley, rutabagas (American Purple Top Yellow, Laurentian), broad leaf sorrel, most covered turnips, winter cress.

12°F (-11°C): Some beets (Cylindra,), some broccoli perhaps, some Brussels sprouts, some cabbage (January King, Savoy types), carrots (Danvers, Oxheart), most collards, some fava beans (mostly cover crop varieties), garlic tops if fairly large, Koji greens, most fall or summer varieties of leeks (Lincoln, King Richard), large tops of potato onions, covered rutabagas, some turnips (Purple Top).

10°F (-12°C): Covered beets, Purple Sprouting broccoli for spring harvest, a few cabbages (Deadon), chard (green chard is hardier than multi-colored types), some collards (Morris Heading can survive at least one night at 10°F), Belle Isle upland cress, some endive (Perfect, President), young Bronze fennel, Blue Ridge kale, probably Komatsuna, some leeks (American Flag (Broad London), Jaune du Poiteau), some covered lettuce (Pirat, Red Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl, Sylvesta, Winter Marvel), Chinese Thick-Stem Mustard may survive down to 6°F (-14°C), covered winter radish (Daikon, China Rose, Shunkyo Semi-Long survive 10°F/-12°C), Senposai leaves (the core of the plant may survive 8°F/-13°C), large leaves of savoyed spinach (more hardy than smooth-leafed varieties), Tatsoi, Yukina Savoy.

Oats cover crop of a medium size die around 10°F (-12°C). Large oat plants will die completely at 6°F (-17°C) or even milder than that.

Garlic shoots poking through the mulch in January. Survive down to 5°F (-15°C), and if killed, will regrow from underground.
Photo Pam Dawling

5°F (-15°C): Garlic tops even if small, some kale (Winterbor, Westland Winter), some leeks (Bulgarian Giant, Laura), some bulb onions, potato onions and other multiplier onions, smaller leaves of savoy spinach and broad leaf sorrel. Many of the Even’ Star Ice Bred greens varieties and the Ice-Bred White Egg turnip are hardy down to 6°F (-14°C), a few unprotected lettuces if small (Winter Marvel, Tango, North Pole, Green Forest).

0°F (-18°C): Chives, some collards (Blue Max, Winner, McCormack’s Green Glaze), corn salad (mâche), garlic, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, Even’ Star Ice-Bred Smooth Leaf kale, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel, Tadorna); some bulb onions, yellow potato onions, some onion scallions, (Evergreen Winter Hardy White, White Lisbon), parsnips (probably even colder), salad burnet, salsify (?), some spinach (Bloomsdale Savoy, Long Standing Bloomsdale,  Olympia). Walla Walla onions sown in late summer are said to be hardy down to -10°F (-23°C), but I don’t trust below 0°F (-18°C)

Crimson clover is hardy down to 0°F (-18°C) or perhaps as cold as -10°F (-23°C)

-5°F (-19°C): Leaves of overwintering varieties of cauliflower, Vates kale survives although some leaves may be too damaged to use. Lacinato Rainbow Mix kale may survive this temperature.

A cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

-10°F (-23°C) Austrian Winter Field Peas and Crimson clover (used as cover crops).

-15°F (-26°C) Hairy vetch cover crop – some say down to -30°F (-34°C)

-20°F (-29°C) Dutch White clover cover crops – or even -30°F (-34°C)

-30°F to -40°F (-34°C to -40°C): Narrow leaf sorrel, Claytonia and some cabbage are said to be hardy in zone 3. I have no personal experience of this.

-40°F (-40°C) Winter wheat and winter rye (cover crops).

Hoophouse Notes

Winter crops snug in our hoophouse in a December snowstorm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our double-plastic hoophouse keeps night time temperatures about 8F (4.5C) degrees warmer than outdoors, sometimes 10F (5.5C) degrees warmer. Plus, plants tolerate lower temperatures inside a hoophouse. The soil stays warmer; the plants recover in the warmer daytime conditions (it seems to be the night+day average temperature that counts);

In the hoophouse (8F (4.5C) degrees warmer than outside) plants without extra rowcover can survive 14F (7.7C) degrees colder than they could survive outside; with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan) at least 21F (11.6C) degrees colder than outside.

For example, salad greens in our hoophouse can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14°F          (-10°C). Russian kales, lettuce, mizuna, senposai, spinach, tatsoi, turnips, Yukina Savoy survived a hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with. Bright Lights chard got frozen leaf stems.

Lettuce Notes

Lettuce varieties for a solar-heated winter greenhouse or hoophouse in zone 7a: (hardiest are in bold) Buckley, Ezrilla, Green Forest, Green Star, Hampton, Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Marvel of Four Seasons, Merlot, New Red Fire, North Pole, Oscarde, Outredgeous, Pirat, Red Cross, Red Sails, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Rouge d’Hiver, Salad Bowl, Sylvesta, Tango, Winter Marvel, Winter Wonderland.

Cold-tolerant early spring lettuces include Buckley, Crawford, Green Forest, Hampton, Merlot, New Red Fire, Revolution, Simpson Elite, Susan’s Red Bibb and Swordleaf.

Notes on Chicories and Endives

Verona Red radicchio, hardy to about 20°F (-7°C).
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Chicories and endives fall into two groups, but they are confusing because the common names sometimes suggest the opposite group than they are botanically. Here’s the best info I have.

Cichorium intybus, commonly called chicories, are mostly heading crops. The group includes radicchio, both Treviso and Chioggia – hardy to about 20°F (-7°C). Belgian Witloof endive (the kind for forcing chicons) is also a chicory. It dies at 25°F (-4°C). Sugarloaf chicory is the least hardy chicory, and dies at 27°F (-3°C).

Cichorium endivia, commonly called endives, are mostly loose-leaf crops, less cold-hardy than intybus types (chicories). This group includes Frisée types and escaroles, which are also known as Batavian endives. They generally survive down to 22°F (-6°C), although Perfect and President endives can survive down to 10°F (-12°C) – can anyone confirm or deny this?

© Pam Dawling 2021


Go to my Events Page for more information on these online events

Mother Earth News Fair Online: Food Independence Course Part Two was released on 3/26/21.

It consists of eight video presentations, most of which come with pdf handouts. My contribution is Growing Asian Greens, and pairs nicely with Guide to Asian Vegetables with Wendy Kiang-Spray, author of The Chinese Kitchen Garden: Growing Techniques and Family Recipes from a Classic Cuisine. Other topics include Dandelion Wine, Homemade Teas, Food Conversations, Passive Solar Greenhouse Design, Productive Growing from Home, and Growing Your Own Spices.

You can subscribe to the All-Access Bundle for $2.99/month (or $35 for a year).

My previous contribution is an 8-part Garden Planning Course

I also did a workshop on Winter Cover Crops for Gardeners as part of the Winter Gardening Course.

All these and many more videos and handouts are available as part of the All-Access Bundle.

 

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!

 

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Greenhorns

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Edited by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming and Paula Manalo, Storey Publishers, 2012. 250 pages, $14.95.

This book isn’t new but deserves much more attention. It’s a collection of short pieces by farmers about things they learned as new farmers that they want to pass on, to save newbies (greenhorns) making those mistakes. Because it is personal anecdotes, this is easy to read, despite the seriousness. Greenhorns presents thought-provoking material, so you can usefully read one piece in a spare minute, and then think about it while you do a routine task. It’s a good companion volume to the more technical books on starting to farm.

There are fifty different short pieces, clustered into topics such as Money, Land, Body/Heart/Soul, Purpose, Beasts, Nuts & Bolts, Ninja Tactics, Old Neighbors, New Community. The resource section is a tad old, but still contains good stuff.

This book is written for the people who are willing to “jump high hurdles and work long hours to build a solid business” around the love of farming. Severine quotes Thomas Edison “Opportunity is missed by many because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Some of the messages are encouraging: you will get stronger with practice using a hoe and working outdoors all day, and you can learn diligence, courage and resilience. Don’t expect to be perfect from day one! Especially if you are making the big transition from an urban, less physically-active lifestyle. On small budgets of money and time, it is important to take care of your health, including sanity.

You do not need to struggle alone! Look for opportunities such as incubator farms, where experienced farmers are nearby as mentors, and you rent land, greenhouse space and some equipment. “I laugh every time I stop with a hoe in my hand to text the other farmers to see if a tractor is free”, says Meg Runyan. Beginner farmer programs are another source of support.

Some of the stories act as reality checks, including this from Jeff Fisher: “Cut, cracked, and bleeding fingers are just the start of the physical hardships of farming.” “At the end of each day I was left with aches, pains, cuts, cracks, blisters, infections, stings and sprains.” Not all of those, every day, I want to add! Farming is a very physical lifestyle, so invest in maintaining and strengthening your body for a long career.

“I feel so alone sometimes. It’s overwhelming to have every decision weigh on me. . . Why did I choose to farm alone? I just wish I had some company. Frustrated and full of self-pity, I finish the lettuce in a huff. . . As I work, my tantrum begins to subside.”

You need a sturdy sense of your own worth. How will you deal with a potential customer complaining about your prices (and by implication down-valuing your work? Will you get defensive? Crumple into tears? Go on at length about your own self-doubts? Admit you are new and slower than an experienced farmer? Such issues can lead to Imposter Syndrome (chronic self-doubt despite external proof of your competence).

It can be helpful to learn how to reframe a situation and celebrate the half-full glass. Learn to appreciate rural life. Learn to make friends with neighboring farmers, for what you share in common, setting aside the differences. Listen to their advice, accept offers of help when you can. Build community, a wealth of human connections. How important is it to you to look different? As Vince Booth points out, “This project of finding common ground with people who voice conservative ideals would be a lot more daunting if our agrarianism wasn’t an honest attempt to embody the most fundamental of conservative tenets: There are limits to everything. Given that, I believe local farming can be a rallying point for those on the left and those on the right . . .”

Josh Morgenthau shares his realization that reality can crowd out the ideals (which are the root of the disdain some farmers have for the organic movement). He grew fruit without chemical sprays, but was he prepared to lose his whole crop and go out of business rather than spray? How great a benefit to humanity would that be? “Even from an environmental point of view, running tractors, fertilizing with organic fertilizer, and putting untold other resources, human and otherwise, into growing an organic crop, only to lose it on principle. . . well, that just didn’t seem reasonable.” “Getting today’s customers to accept apples that bear more physical resemblance to potatoes than to fruit turns out to be even more challenging than is growing them organically in the first place.”

Those with romantic notions about working with horses will find Alyssa Jumars’ story sobering. Ignorant bliss, obstinacy, passion and ambition are not the way to go. She learned that they had unwittingly taught their draft horses to throw a fit or act terrified, so the people would take away the work, talk soothingly and stroke their necks. This big problem split apart the farm partnership.

Editor Paula Manalo

Some of the tales are cautionary. Teresa Retzlaff and her partner leased farm land from very nice people they knew. “Be sure to put everything you are agreeing to in writing. Be explicit. Then have both a lawyer and a therapist listen as everyone involved explains exactly what is being agreed to. And still have a backup plan in case it all goes to hell.” She doesn’t cast blame or say anything nasty, but clearly she speaks from experience.

Be realistic about your finances, consider loans and debts carefully. Have a backup plan, and regularly compare your daily realities with where you need to be financially. Don’t dig deeper into a hole. You’ll be putting your hearts, souls, energy, time, family and livelihood on the line when you take out a loan. Don’t rush to own and lose sight of your actual goal of farming. Bare land with no infrastructure is going to be hard to wrest a living from if you have no money left over for building the farm!

Luke Deikis advises walking the land before sitting down to discuss details with sellers (saves time drinking unnecessary cups of tea!) Even better, get a map and do a drive by before scheduling a meeting!

Ben Swimm writes about losing tools as part of a chaotic spiral that’s especially dangerous for new farmers. It’s connected with being over-ambitious, spreading yourself too thin, getting flustered and disorganized. This can lead downwards to a state of demoralization. Adding to the challenge is the seasonal nature of farming. It gets too late to fix a problem this year – you need to move on from this year’s mess and do something different next year. Triage is as valuable in farming as in hospitals.

Sarah Smith writes about farming while raising two young children. As a farmer-mama, “there are no vacations, Saturday gymnastics classes, or afternoons at the playground.” Sure, the kids thrive in the outdoor air, learn math making change at market, and develop good social skills by being around so many different people, but “on many days, all this comes at a cost to our family.” Being a farmer and a mama are both full-time jobs and among the most difficult in the world.

Evan Driscoll combined an unpaid 20 hour-a-week farming internship, 40 hours a week earning money, and childcare. He thought that was reasonable, on his way to becoming a farm owner. He hadn’t realized that having his partner in law school meant he’d be the primary caretaker for their child. That’s definitely something to clarify before you get too far down the road.

Maud Powell was shocked to find herself in the conventional women’s role on her farm, after her children were born, while her husband did the fieldwork. The couple apprenticed on a farm together, doing all the types of work interchangeably. She imagined continuing this way on their own farm after her first child was born: farming with the baby strapped to her back. Like many pre-parents, she underestimated the amount of energy and time breastfeeding and childcare would take. She also underestimated the love and devotion she would feel for her child, and how her focus would move from farming to mothering, and taking care of the household.

After her second child was born, her struggle continued. For efficiency in their time-strapped lives, they let their gender roles become more entrenched. This changed when they started growing seed crops. Preserving the fruits that contained the seeds increased the value of the kitchen work. Maud later branched out into community organizing around shared seed cleaning equipment, farm internships, and a multi-farm CSA. She became the one “going out to work” while her husband stayed home on the farm.

Farming includes many aspects we cannot control, including the sometimes devastating weather. Unexpected frosts, floods, hurricanes. As farm-workers, we learn to work outdoors, where the weather is a matter of personal comfort. But it is only as farm-owners that the weather affects our livelihood. We learn to do our best to prepare where we can, surrender when we must, and pick and up and rebuild afterwards.

Editor Severine von Tscharner Fleming

Kristen Johansen says, after Hurricane Ike destroyed their chicken housing in the night, “It was our first year farming, and the learning curve was steeper than you can imagine. It was demanding, stressful, frustrating, exhausting, dirty and beautiful at the same time. When we took the leap into farming, overnight we became responsible for several hundred tiny little lives, and the weight of that responsibility was heavy.”

Climate change is undeniable; we must develop resilience. Ginger Salkowski says, “A successful new farmer in today’s (and tomorrow’s) climate has to have a serious package of skills. You have to be able to live with less. . . get very creative with very little money and time in order to make your season happen. You have to thrive on uncertainty. . . You need to be strong in body. . . You must be strong in mind . . . You must be strong in spirit: In times of high stress, there is grace to be found in pausing to observe the first sweet-pea blossom . . .”

Farming is mostly an exercise in managing chaos, as Courtney Lowery Cowgill points out. She shares her twin defeat of seeds that would not germinate and a hoped-for pregnancy that wasn’t happening. Proactive people make good farmers, and yet we must remember we can’t make everything turn out the way we want. We must learn not to blame ourselves for things we could not control or predict. While also getting better at predicting. “Farming in an ecologically responsible way involves good timing, and when we need to get something done, we git ‘er done!” (Paula Manalo)

Some of the stories describe unconventional (risky) ideas that helped the farmers get through a tough patch, like using a credit card with a year of zero percent interest rate to finance the first year of farming! Or getting a farm loan that didn’t allow for earning any off-farm money (very hard while starting up), followed (when that didn’t work out and they had to get off-farm jobs) by a home loan that didn’t allow any farming! “The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land . . . was made even harder to swallow when we had to provide written assurance to the lenders . . . that although we had indeed spent five years running a ‘hobby farm’ we . . . now had nice safe real jobs, and only wanted to buy eighteen acres of land zoned agriculture-forestry so we could continue to live a ‘rural lifestyle’” “I can’t say I recommend lying to your bank as a road to farm ownership.”

Don’t feel a failure if you need some off-farm income to make the good life good enough. It doesn’t make your farming any less “real”! Casey O’Leary surveyed neighboring farmers and found she was not alone in needing some off-farm income. There is no shame in doing paid landscaping work two days a week to fill the financial gap. By embracing the part-time nature of your farm, you may be able to increase your dollar per hour, as Casey discovered. Focus on the best-paying farming and walk away at the end of the day. “My relationships with my lover, friends, and family have improved because of my ability to keep my farm in a part-time box.”

Editor Zoe Ida Bradbury

Some passages are about why we farm. If your goal is to grow nourishing food with and for those with limited access, while also meeting your own needs to farm full-time, then don’t focus on making money from farming. Find other sources to support your financial needs. Douglass Decandia had a dream of this sort, and found paid work with a Food Bank. “Most of us don’t need to search for meaning in our lives, because we see it every day. Thankfully, the work itself propels us on to the next task.” (Tanya Tolchin)

Jenna Woginrich is an office worker by day and “a farmer by passion”. She attributes her happiness and success to two things: “I always believed I would (not could, not might, but would. 2. And because I wrote it all down.” Only 2% of people with goals write them down, but of that 2%, 90% achieved their dream.

Emily Oakley and Mike Appel write about their decision to run their 100 member CSA of 50 crops on five acres, with just the two of them. It’s their full time job, and they designed their farm to fit this preference. Their goal is to be as small as possible while still making a living. What a refreshing perspective! Bigger means more responsibilities, more worries, and not necessarily more money. Their farm can be smaller because they are not paying anyone’s wages. Why pay for more land just so you can grow more food, so you can pay employees? Staying small also meant they can have an off-season break. The limitations are that there are no sick days; it can get lonely; it can put strains on the relationship.

Farming may not be easy, but it sure isn’t boring. Sustainable farming includes some pioneer spirit and also giving back/paying forward. Respecting other farmers, customers, neighbors. Mentoring newer farmers, sharing tools.

Some stories share the magic and the sense of connection with past farmers. Sarajane Snyder says: “Farmers, understand what you’re doing in the context of inter-connectedness, of caring for multitudes of beings. Take refuge in the care you are generating and the sustenance you are providing, for humans and bees and microorganisms, for gophers and spiders. Our dirty work is good work.”

Ben James describes the day he realized the rusty spots on the right fender of the John Deere he’d recently bought were caused by the palm and fingertips of the previous owner twisting in the seat to see the row behind the tractor. He shares his realization that “Time on the farm is not static, it’s not a given. It’s not like a ladder with all the rungs evenly spaced. Rather it’s a substance, a material we try to manipulate just as much as we do the tilth and fertility of the soil. How many tomatoes can we harvest before the lightning storm arrives?”

Jen Griffith writes about watching the sunset towards the end of her year as an apprentice living in a tent, watching a great blue heron twenty feet away, swallow a gopher whole.

Don’t miss the bonus flip-book in the bottom right page corners. Watch the seed germinate and grow. Use it to distract that young child while you do your accounting! Or for yourself to wind down and cheer up after a hard day.

Watch a YouTube book trailer here:

https://www.storey.com/books/greenhorns/

What makes vegetable crops bolt and how can I stop it?

Hoophouse spinach in May. Back: bolting Renegade; Front: Escalade.
Photo Pam Dawling

What causes bolting?

 

This is an updated version of the section I included last week, followed by the all-important section on how to stop  or at least delay, plants from bolting.

Bolting is the term for plants going to seed. Rather than grow more leaves and bigger roots, the plants develop stems, fewer and skinnier leaves, then flowers and seeds. The plants are switching their energy to survival of the species in response to the conditions.

When a plant starts to bolt, it is usually a sign to expect a poor harvest. It is also an indication that the plant will decline in terms of flavor. Lettuces become bitter. As long as you can harvest leaves or roots that are not too woody, you can eat bolting plants. But they do become too tough and inedible at some point.

Although bolting is usually seen on crops approaching maturity, it is initiated much earlier, by plant hormones called gibberellins. Bolting then can be triggered by one or more factors, sometimes acting in concert.

  •  ·         Increased day length: Bolting can happen (especially with annual crops) when day length increases as summer approaches. This can be a problem if you planted your seeds too late in the spring to get a harvest before the plants bolt.
  • ·         High soil temperatures: As soil temperatures increase in summer, annual plants are triggered to begin seed and flower production. This isn’t a problem late in the crop’s life, after bountiful harvests. But, when spring has unusually hot weather or if you plant crops too late into the growing season, your crop may bolt before any harvests. Cool weather crops like lettuce and spinach will bolt in spells of hot dry weather.
Bolting lettuce in July
Photo Alexis Yamashita
  • ·         Cold temperatures: A sudden cold snap in spring can signal to biennials (such as onions, leeks, beets and carrots) that “winter” has happened and it’s time to develop seeds for the next season. If you start these crops too early in the calendar year, you risk exposing young plants to cold weather, priming the plants to develop flower stems as soon as the weather warms up again. 
  • ·         Plant size: larger plants are more likely than small ones to bolt when a trigger such as cold temperatures strikes.
  • ·         Annual plants (basil, lettuce, melons, peas) grow from seed, flower and set seed all in one year. That can be spring to winter or fall to summer. Annual crops are sensitive to daylength, and will start making flowers as the daylength (and temperature) increase. Many annuals are crops where we eat the fruit or seeds and bolting is not an issue.
Bolting Vates kale at the end of March
Photo Pam Dawling
  • ·         Biennial plants (beets, brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnips etc), carrots, celery, chard, leeks, onions, spinach) grow big the first year, then seed the second year, if we still have them. Many biennial food crops are grown as cool weather annuals. Unsettled weather (cold nights, hot days, late frosts) early in the season can cause biennials to bolt. Bolting usually occurs after a prolonged cold spell, especially with immature plants. Brassicas started in cool conditions, and grown on in warmer conditions, are primed to bolt. Tatsoi, for example, bolts readily in these conditions.
Tatsoi preparing to bolt – note the smaller leaves and developing flower buds
Photo Pam Dawling
  • ·         Root stress: Bolting caused by root stress typically happens when you disturb a plant’s root system by transplanting, or if your plant runs out of growing space in a container that’s too small, or because the rows did not get sufficiently thinned.
  • ·         Stresses such as insufficient minerals or water: Healthy soil with plenty of nutrients and balanced moisture levels will encourage quick growth. Every grower should aim for this balance, especially those in hotter climates where it’s a race to plant leafy salads, cooking greens and root crops before the hot weather wins. High salt levels are another stressor, particularly in hoophouses.
Bolting Russian kale in our hoophouse March 28
Photo Pam Dawling

Avoiding or postponing bolting

  •  ·         Investigate, record and follow local last planting dates for early spring crops, and first planting dates for fall crops.
  • ·         For some crops there are varieties that are resistant to bolting, such as ‘Boltardy’ beets. If you have had repeated trouble with a particular crop bolting, look for bolt-resistant varieties. Florence fennel is particularly prone to bolting so try ‘Amigo’, ‘Victorio’ and ‘Pronto’ varieties and sow in summer for fall harvests. White and brown onions are less prone to bolting than red varieties.
  • ·         Onions grown from sets (plants stymied in mid-growth) are prone to bolting. Grow onions from seed or plant heat-treated sets in early spring (exposure to high temperatures suppresses flower-bud formation)
  • ·         Try to avoid stressing your plants.
  • ·         Direct sow. Plants prone to bolting due to root stress (beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, and many herbs) grow best when you direct sow them, rather than transplanting. This allows their root systems to develop without interruption.
  • ·         Transfer seedlings to a larger pot before the roots get crowded (“root bound”)
  • ·         Harden off plants before transplanting. Get them used to outdoor conditions, avoiding shock.
  • ·         Cover plants in the event of a cold spell, which can keep them from being directly exposed to cold temperatures, rain, or snow.
  • ·         Use seaweed or kelp liquid fertilizer, which help plants handle stress better.
Bolting mustard greens on May 3.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • ·         To postpone bolting in spring, avoid chilling young brassica plants (above 5-8 true leaves, or with a stem diameter above a certain size), below 40°F for a few days, or longer at 50°F (10°C). The interaction of plant size (age) and cold temperatures makes the plant flower. Older plants are more likely to bolt than young plants at the same cold temperature. Young hardened-off plants are very resistant to bolting. If broccoli and cauliflower plants are stressed into flowering while young, the small plants will only produce small heads.
  • ·         Coax your vegetables to maturity quickly and efficiently so they’re ready to eat before the plants have a chance to flower.
  • ·         Mulch spring crops early to help keep the soil and roots cooler, extending the harvest. We have found this to be especially helpful with spring cabbage and broccoli.
  • ·         Cover near-mature bulbing onions during cold spells to protect them from bolting.
  • ·         Use shadecloth to keep greens and lettuce cool as the season warms, or plant them in the shade of other plants
  • ·         Consider the timing of sowing. Grow storage carrots and beets in the fall, not the spring.
  • ·         Many cool-season crops mature better before temperatures get to 80°F (27°C), so plan accordingly. If your springs usually heat up fast as ours do, start earlier, or plant in late summer, fall, or even winter, depending on your climate, and grow these crops in reliably cool weather.
  • ·         Plant later annuals after the summer solstice to grow in the decreasing daylength without risk of bolting (unless another factor such as stress or temperature comes into play).
  • ·         Once cold-hardy plants are big, they can endure cold winter temperatures. They will not bolt until the day length is lengthening again (after the Winter Solstice) and the temperature starts to rise.
  • ·         Brassica greens started in hot conditions do not usually bolt if they have enough water. I recommend both Tokyo bekana and Maruba Santoh (both “celery cabbage” types of Asian greens), for summer substitutes for lettuce. You do have to grow them fast, with plenty of water, and insect netting if you have brassica leaf pests.
  • ·         In central Virginia for outdoors in spring, the only Asian green we grow is senposai, which we have found to withstand bolting until a bit later than others. There may be other loose-leaf Asian greens we could grow, but spring can go from too cold to too hot very quickly here.
Bolting senposai on May 3
Photo Pam Dawling
  • ·         To prevent bolting in Asian greens, sow these crops from July onwards. Asian greens bolt as nights become warmer  on average above 50-55°F (10-13°C)
  • ·         Winter radishes will only form a good root if they are planted in late summer or fall as the days get shorter.
  • ·         Sow quick-maturing plants like lettuce, cilantro, or radish regularly. Succession sowing can keep some plants always coming into maturity instead of relying on one sowing to last a long time without bolting in the garden. 
  • ·         If you grow biennial plants and harvest them in the first year, they are unlikely to bolt. A few specimens may still do so. Chard is cold-sensitive, and by delaying sowing until April, we can  grow chard all summer as a fresh cooking green, and it will not bolt no matter how hot it gets. We cannot keep kale and collards producing all summer as gardeners in cooler climates do.
  • ·         For early harvests of biennials, start the plants in plug flats or soil blocks indoors, planting them out when the weather is more settled and avoiding cold stress.
  • ·         Dry soil can also encourage bolting, particularly with cabbages, cauliflower, arugula and spinach. To avoid this, provide ample water.
  • ·         If the compost is not nutritious enough, top-dress with more compost.
  • ·         For over-wintered leeks and onions, bolting can be delayed by topdressing with 2-3oz per sq yd (70-100g per sq m) of nitrogen rich fertilizer very early in the new year
  • ·         Pick off the outer leaves from leafy crops such as lettuce, keeping the plants from maturing. As well as providing you with multiple harvests, this can extend the harvest period by as much as 10 weeks, although in hot weather the flavor may still become bitter, even without bolting. Grow Batavian varieties in hot weather.
  • ·         With some crops, like basil, if you catch a plant in the very early stages of bolting, you can temporarily reverse the process by snipping off the flowers and flower buds. The plant will go back to producing leaves and will stop bolting. In most plants (such as broccoli and lettuce) this only buys you a little extra time to harvest the crop.
  • ·         Cabbage wrangling: If a cabbage is mature and preparing to split open (a stage of bolting) before you are ready to harvest, you can get a firm hold on the head and give it a quarter turn. This will break some of the feeder roots and reduce the water uptake, delaying splitting.
Bolting over-wintered mizuna, Scarlet Frills and Golden Frills in March in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

 Some specific examples

Lettuce is one of the vegetables most frequently seen bolting. I’ve even seen photos of bolting lettuce in garden magazines, with no acknowledgement that the plants are only fit for the compost heap.

The bitter taste of bolting lettuce is caused by a rapid buildup of compounds called ‘sesquiterpene lactones’. Plants manufacture these compounds to provide resistance to leaf-eating insect pests. The plants also speed up their production of seeds to grow the next generation.

Onions (excerpted from Sustainable Market Farming)

Onions are a biennial plant. When onion plants experience an extended period of cooling temperatures, such as winter, they go dormant. When temperatures rise, they start growing again. After being exposed to cold temperatures, smaller seedlings with a diameter less than pencil thickness (3/8” or 1 cm), and fewer than six leaves will resume growth and not usually bolt. Over-large transplants are more likely to bolt. If seedlings are becoming thicker than a pencil before you can set them out, undercut 2″ (5 cm) below the surface to reduce the growth rate.

The trigger for the transition from bulbing to flowering is temperatures below 50°F (10°C) for 3-4 weeks, after the plants have six leaves or more. This can happen, if you are unlucky, after an unexpected cold period in spring. Avoid bolting because the bulbs start to disappear to feed the growing flower stems. Bolted onions will not dry down to have tight necks and so will not store.

It is possible in our climate (and perhaps yours) to sow onions in the fall and plant the seedlings out in the early spring, for bigger vegetative growth and therefore the chance of bigger bulbs. The temperature-and-size trigger limits how early in the fall seeds can be sown – if the seedlings have made lower stems larger than a pencil in diameter when winter closes in, the plants are likely to bloom in the spring rather than forming bulbs. A few onion plants will likely always bolt, especially if the spring is long with alternating warm and cool spells.

Starting seedlings in a hoophouse in early November works well for us. Previously we sowed outdoors in late September and protected the plants with row cover and cold frames, a system that would work fine somewhere warmer than zone 7. The hoophouse works well for us because the plants get much better air flow, are protected from very cold temperatures, and can be easily seen and cared for. The plants grow faster in the hoophouse than outdoors, so we must start them later. Outdoor sowings tend to suffer some winter killing and varying degrees of mold. The colder the temperatures the plants experience, the more likely it is for the larger ones to bolt before growing large bulbs. Hence a more moderate microclimate, such as a hoophouse, reduces the rate of bolting. In colder zones, a slightly heated greenhouse might work better for over-wintering.

A bed of spinach on May 9 – note how the leaves are pointy – the spinach is preparing to bolt.
Photo Pam Dawling

Spinach grows best in temperatures from 35-75°F (1-23°C). Spinach will begin to flower once spring days are longer than 14 hours and temperatures get above 75°F (23°C). The leaves become pointed (arrowhead shape), less fleshy, and the plants get taller, and develop a flower head in warmer weather. Plant spinach 4-6 weeks before the average date of the last frost in your region. You can also sow 6-8 weeks before the first fall frost. You can also plant seed in a cold frame in fall or cover late season plants with rowcover, for harvests during the winter or the following early spring. In warm weather grow chard or leaf beet instead of spinach.

Change your attitude

You can’t control the climate, the weather or the daylength. If you’ve taken the steps listed above and your plants are still bolting, change your attitude!

As soon as you see signs of your greens bolting, harvest the entire plant. According to some excellent cooks, flowering bok choy stems are tender and sweet and make a great addition to stir-fry and salads.

Learn to appreciate peppery arugula or slightly bitter lettuce (mixed in with other salad greens).  It can be more enjoyable than the bland tasting lettuce available in stores.

Bolted vegetables are food for pollinating insects such as bees. Enjoy the beauty of sprays of yellow brassica flowers, majestic globes of leeks and onions, and lacy carrot umbels.

 

Root Crops in March

We shovel many wheelbarrows full of compost to our raised beds every year.
Photo Wren Vile

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in March

As soon as the soil is dry enough and not frozen, we spread compost on the raised beds we plan to plant in February and March, and till in the compost. We make ourselves a Spring Start-up Plan, so we know where to focus our energy when the weather gives us a chance.

Spring Start-up Plan

We aim to spread compost 4-6 weeks before planting, rototill 2-4 weeks before planting, and prep the bed a week or two before. This is more time than we allow later in the year, but in early spring it’s good to seize the opportunities that arise and not take the weather for granted.

This means in January we compost and till beds for spinach, turnips and our first carrots. In the first half of February we till the turnip beds and any beds of winter-killed oats cover crops that we will be planting soon. We compost the first lettuce bed, the kale and collard beds, and those for cabbage, beets, more carrots, senposai and peas (all have planting dates March 9 to 15). In the second half of February, we compost the third carrot bed and till the ones we already composted. In early March we till the third carrot bed.

A bed ready for tilling after mowing the cover crop and spreading compost.
Photo Pam Dawling

Once we get to March, day length has increased and temperatures are starting to climb. There is a noticeable increase in the rate of germination and growth (unlike for our February sowings, which are rooted in faith and optimism!) All being well with the weather (it’s extremely wet this year!), in early March, we direct sow turnips (3/6- 3/16), and radishes #1 (Cherry Belle or some other fast variety)

In mid-March, we can transplant kohlrabi. And we direct sow carrots #3 and beets. See below for more about beets. In late March, we direct sow our carrots #4, and more radishes and beets. We can sow kohlrabi if we have no transplants, and thin to 6” (15 cm) later.

Potatoes

A row of potato seed pieces ready to cover.
Photo by Wren Vile

We plant potatoes when the daffodils bloom, usually mid-March. Last year I wrote an extensive series of posts about growing potatoes.

See Planning to Grow Potatoes Again, the last part of a monthly series on growing potatoes, a dietary staple.

PART ONE: Planting potatoes (April)

PART TWO: Growing potatoes (May)

PART THREE: Potato pests and diseases (June)

PART FOUR: Harvesting potatoes (July)

PART FIVE: Storing potatoes (August)

PART SIX: Planning to grow potatoes again (September)

Beets

Detroit Dark Red beets in early June sunshine.
Photo Pam Dawling

Beets are workhorse root crops that thrive in mild weather, store well, and are popular traditional foods. They are crops that can provide high yields for the time invested.

Beets come in several types, round, top-shaped and long. The size and quality of the greens is a factor if you sell bunched beets with tops, or use the tops for greens. We like the 6” (15cm) long Cylindra/Formanova/Forono ones (55 days to maturity, OP). They are very tender and easy to cut into regular slices, for pickles or cooking. The skins come off easily, and the flavor is very sweet and the texture tender.

Among round ones we like Ace (50 days to maturity, F1 hybrid), and Detroit Dark Red (60d), a tender open-pollinated variety. Detroit Crimson Globe is said to maintain better flavor in hot weather than most others, which can develop off-flavors. Early Wonder Tall Top (48d), is also open-pollinated. Lutz Green Leaf (70d) is a big long-storage variety. There are also golden beets, white beets and candy-striped Chioggia beets, although in my experience, what they gain in appearance they lose in flavor and tenderness.

Beets seeds average 35,000 /lb. 2,200/oz, 80 seeds/gm. 1,285 seeds (2/3 oz, 18gm) sow 100’ (30m).  150’/oz, 2,300’/lb., 9 lbs/acre. 315,000 seeds/acre. Yield can be 40 lbs. (18kg) greens, 100 lbs. (45kg) roots/100’ (30m), or 14,000 lbs/acre, 2540 kg/ha.

Beets need a pH of 6.0-7.0, preferring 6.5-6.8.  They require abundant potassium, which can be supplied by woodash. Boron deficiency can show up in beets as internal browning, or dark dead tissue, as well as distorted leaf growth. It is most likely to occur in alkaline soils after long hot, dry spells. Beets can suffer from “zoning,” (white rings in the roots), if there are acute weather fluctuations.

Young Cylindra beets in early May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow beets whenever the soil is between 50°F (10°C) and 95°F (35°C), so long as you can keep the surface damp. With beets we do a single sowing in mid-March and more in early August. We are growing for fresh use, pickling and storage, but not bunch sales, so we don’t need to do frequent sowings. For a continuous supply of greens and baby beets, sow every 2 weeks from spring until 8 weeks before regular frosts usually occur, or about 10 weeks before a heavy freeze is expected.

We direct sow either dry beet seed, or some we have presoaked for 1-2 hours. Beet seed drowns easily: don’t use too much water or soak for too long.  Sow 0.5″(1.2cm) deep in spring, deeper in hot summers, but never more than an inch (2.5cm) deep. We sow an inch (2.5 cm) apart in single rows 8-10” (20-25cm) apart. Others sow in bands 2-4″ (5-10cm) wide, at about 15 seeds/ft (2cm apart), with bands 12-18″ (30-45cm) apart. As for carrots, avoid soil crusting.

It is important to get good soil contact for the corky seedballs, so tamp or roll the rows after seeding. Keep the rows damp, by watering as needed for the 5-17 days they take to emerge. Beet seeds are actually seed balls (clusters of seeds) so each one you plant will produce several seedlings right next to each other. “Singling” the beets is an important step, and they will benefit from hoeing, thinning and weeding. Beets deal with weed pressure and crowding a lot better than carrots do, so if you have to choose which to weed, the carrots win! We thin in stages, so that at the second thinning, the baby beets can be used as a crop.

Detroit Dark Red beets , harvested, washed and trimmed.
Photo Pam Dawling

For mature beets, allow each a minimum of 3” (7.5cm). The Cylindra beets can be left a bit closer, and will push themselves up out of the soil as they grow. Know and Grow Vegetables recommends establishing 5 plants per square foot (54 per square metre) for early beets. This translates to a final spacing of 4 x 7” (10 x 18cm). For maincrop beets, aim for 10-15 per square foot (107-161 per square metre.) For maximum total yields of small sized roots use a spacing of 1 x 12” (2.5 x 30cm).

This info about growing beets is excerpted from my book Sustainable Market Farming. See the book for more on pests and diseases, harvesting and storing, and seed saving.

In our climate, beets are one of the crops that can be sown in spring and again in early fall (actually August for beets here in central Virginia). See my August post Sowing beets, radishes and kale, transplanting cabbage.

See Root Crops in August for more about fall beets. Beets can be tricky to germinate in hot weather, but to get good storable-sized roots, we need to get them established by 8/20. (Two months before our average first frost.)

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in March

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

As in January and February in central Virginia, there are no roots to harvest outdoors in March except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. We do have horseradish, but not the others, but we don’t have a lot of demand for that.

We have had outdoor night temperatures of 12°F/-11°C and 11°F/-13°C. This winter we had some carrots outdoors over the winter. We harvested them and got 150 pounds from 400 row feet. Not a high yield but they do taste good! They are Danvers 126. The intended sowing date was August 14, but we didn’t get the seed in the ground until September 5.

A crate of overwintered Danvers 126 carrots

In the hoophouse our #4 radishes will get harvested during March. Our #5 radishes, sown 12/23, will then feed us until around April 7.

We still have some of our good size second hoophouse turnips until mid-March. We sowed those on October 25. The greens are a bit ragged now and less appetizing for cooking, although on cold rainy days, they make for more pleasant harvesting than any greens outdoors! Turnip greens (and Russian kale) are our last hoophouse greens to bolt, so we value them.  We need to harvest the turnips to make space to transplant our hoophouse tomatoes in mid-March.

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in March

  • Green chit (pre-sprout) seed potatoes, see Planting potatoes .
  • Buy seed potatoes for June planting, and refrigerate them. Keep at 40-50°F (4.5-10°C) in the dark, until 6/1.
  •  Test and condition sweet potatoes for 2 to 4 weeks at 75-85°F (24-29°C), 95% humidity if you are planning to grow your own sweet potato slips.
Sweet potato sprouting slips.
Photo Pam Dawling

Special Root Crop Topic for March in Central Virginia: What makes vegetable crops bolt?

Green mizuna bolting in our hoophouse in mid April. Although the mizuna is bolting, the Scarlet Frills is hanging in there.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Bolting is the term for plants going to seed. Rather than grow more leaves and bigger roots, the plants develop stems, skinnier and fewer leaves, then flower buds, flowers and seeds.
  •  The plants are switching their energy to survival of the species in the face of unsuitable conditions.
  •   When a plant starts to bolt, it is usually a sign to expect a poor harvest. It is also an indication that the plant will decline in terms of flavor. Lettuce become bitter. As long as you can harvest leaves or roots that are not too woody, you can eat bolting plants. But they do become too tough and inedible at some point.
  •  Crops inclined to bolt include arugula, basil, beets, brassicas (such as cabbage), carrots, celery, leeks, lettuce, onions, turnips and spinach.
  •  Bolting is initiated by plant hormones called gibberellins.
  •  Although bolting is usually seen on crops approaching maturity, it is initiated much earlier.
  •  It’s a complex business, understanding the various triggers to bolting.
  •  Stress factors, including changes in day length (usually an increase), high temperatures or low temperatures at particular stages in a plant’s growth cycle, plant size, plant type, root stress, and stresses such as insufficient water or minerals.
  • Increased day length: Bolting can happen when day length increases as summer approaches. This can be a problem if you planted your seeds too late in the spring. The extra hours of light trigger annual plants to run to seed.
  •  High soil temperatures: As soil temperatures increase in summer, plants are triggered to begin seed and flower production. This isn’t a problem late in the crop’s life, after bountiful harvests. But, when spring has unusually hot weather or if you plant crops too late into the growing season, your crop may bolt before any harvests. Cool weather crops like lettuce and spinach will bolt in spells of hot dry weather.
  • Cold temperatures: A sudden cold snap in spring can signal to biennials (such as onions, leeks, beets and carrots) that “winter” has happened and it’s time to develop seeds for the next season. If you start these crops too early in the calendar year, you risk exposing young plants to cold weather, priming the plants to develop flower stems as soon as the weather warms up again. 
  •  Plant size:
  •  Annual plants grow from seed, flower and set seed all in one year. That can be spring to winter or fall to summer. Annual crops are sensitive to daylength, and will start making flowers as the daylength (and temperature) increase. When an annual plant bolts, it’s the beginning of the end.
  • Biennial plants (onions, leeks, carrots, beets, and chard) grow big the first year, then seed the second year. They can initiate flowers in the first yea, due to unsettled weather early in the season. Bolting usually occurs after a prolonged cold spell, often during an immature stage. Cold nights, hot days and late frosts may also contribute to premature flowering.
  • Root stress: Bolting caused by root stress typically happens when you disturb a plant’s root system by transplanting, or if your plant runs out of growing space in a container that’s too small.
  • Stresses such as insufficient minerals or water: Healthy soil with plenty of nutrients and balanced moisture levels will encourage quick growth. Every grower should aim for this balance, especially those in hotter climates where it’s a race to plant leafy salads, cooking greens and root crops before the hot weather fights against you.

Collards bolting in late March.
Photo Pam Dawling

Next week I will provide information on avoiding, preventing and postponing bolting.

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for Everyone

Joseph Tychonievich and Liz Anna Kozik, Ten Speed Press, 2021. 90 pages, color throughout, $19.99 paperback, $12.99 Kindle.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a comic book, and it makes a refreshing change from my usual (less comic) gardening and farming reading. This small book, with text by Joseph Tychonievich and drawings by Liz Anna Kozik, is a delight. The art is wonderfully clear and realistic, even though they are not botanical drawings. The page of seven herbs makes them all distinguishable. The characters have character, keeping the reader engaged with the plot (oh, not a deliberate pun!)

This will be a great book for new gardeners (of whom there are acres, as a result of Covid-19). It will also particularly help recovering failed gardeners get a fresh, more successful start. It is perfect for visual learners, gardeners with English not their first language, and young gardeners. I have a gardening friend who says her teenager reads only graphic novels and she hopes this book will lead him to do more gardening, more enthusiastically!

It is easy to read/look at, entertaining and accurate (therefore helpful). The breezy, friendly conversations between the fictional characters, young novice gardener Mia (who writes code as a day job) and retired neighbor George, show a great example of food-growing (and computer help) as mutual aid. Gardening as a step to a more peaceful and productive future.

The book covers location, choosing crops, timing, soil testing, bed prep, buying plants, starting seeds, planting in the garden or in containers, and maintenance. This is followed by troubleshooting, harvesting, celebrating, and a “Cheat sheet of cheat sheets” and further reading. The cheat sheets throughout step us aside from the story to dive into some aspect more deeply. Come back to those when you need them.

Mia is savvy about technology, finding a compass app or a last frost date when she needs it. George has the gardening experience to share, including his ever-changing Rule #1! (Grow what you like to eat. Grow what’s easy to grow. Always grow herbs. Grow flowers. Get a soil test.)

Important points are included, such as even though organic fertilizer is best, using too much is a bad thing. Check for lead in city soils and if you find it, garden elsewhere (community garden?), grow vegetables in containers of bought-in soil, or grow flowers, not food. Why is Swiss chard easier to grow than spinach? Do you actually like radishes?

Packed in this little book, you will find how to build raised beds, how to mulch, how to choose healthy plants to buy, which crops do better from seed, the most important bugs to watch out for and more. Joseph the writer has been gardening most of his life, and Liz Anna the artist clearly knows her vegetables too.

Pages from the Comic Book Guide to Growing Food. Art by Liz Anna Kozic. Text by Joseph Tychonievich

What is missing that I would have included? Making compost (can be an issue in city gardens, I know); more about choosing seed varieties in stores, catalogs or online; sowing seeds (like carrots) in rows rather than individual holes.

What is included that I would not have thought of? Root-pruning bought plants to encourage good outward growth. A flow chart of whether or not to water that day. Ideas for garden party snacks! The value of a smartphone as a gardening tool!

This is a real book – it has an index! (Some of my readers may know I live with people who index books, and the index is a better way to judge a book than the cover!)

Yes, this book works as a guide for new vegetable gardeners, and right now when you can’t garden with your neighbor physically at your side, this could be the next best thing. It packs a lot in a small space, which is probably what most of the readers are also hoping to do in their gardens!

For sure, the topics are simplified, but the most important bits are all there, including plenty of cautions to help prevent common mistakes, and make it more likely that readers will continue to garden and learn in the future. There are a few resources listed at the end, useful pointers of where to turn when this book can’t get into enough details, or you’ve found a bug that the authors don’t include. This book and a smartphone will help you start growing your own food successfully.


I wrote an earlier version of this review for the Comics Journal.

Joseph Tychonievich
Liz Anna Kozic

Flame Weeding

Commiseration and sympathy to ice-blasted farmers and gardeners

Visits to my website shot up over the weekend. People are checking out my Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables as they are dealing with temperatures considerably colder than they ever expected for their region.  I hope you can find some helpful information there while you triage your crops into “OK with these temperatures, can be left alone”/”might die, need help”/”will definitely die, no point in trying to save them”.

Q and A

Next a couple of questions that people left on the contact form, that I thought others might be interested in.

Q1. Is there an easy way to figure out what vegetables I can plant to maximize my space and yield. I am not sure if its my soil or sunlight availability in my backyard garden.

A. Most vegetables do need at least 6 hours a day of sunlight, so as we get closer to spring, assess various spots in your backyard. Maximizing use of the space includes careful choice of plant spacing, but also following one crop with another, or squeezing crops in between others. There’s no quick answer. Search my site for Succession Planting, Crop Spacing, Choosing Crops.

Q2. I am currently looking for Onion seeds or seedlings to purchase for approximately 1hector to plant. We based in the Free State Area.

A. South Africa? Sorry, I have no idea what is available where you are. 1 hectare is a huge area for onions, especially if you have never grown them before. Use transplants, not direct-seeded onions. Choose varieties adapted to your latitude, or else they may never grow big, or may not dry down and store well.

Flaming can be used for weed control, pest control, or crop termination.

Flame weeding can be used for carrots and beets before emergence.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Our introduction to flame-weeding was via the first article I ever read in Growing for Market magazine. It was about flaming for pre-emergence weed control in carrots. It sounded like such an effective method that we bought a Red Dragon flamer and never looked back! I remember saying and writing that it worked so well it felt like cheating!

Our flamer

We use a handheld flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. This person also acts as a “fire warden.” Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame. Walking along the aisle between beds and wafting the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed takes about ten minutes for a 100′ (30 m) bed. Flame-weeding alone can reduce hand-weeding to one hour/100′ (30 m). Hand-weeding can be reduced to 6 minutes/100′ (30 m) by flame-weeding after using stale beds which have been hoed three or four times.

Stale seedbed flaming for weed control

In the stale seedbed technique, the bed is prepared and watered ahead of planting time and one or more flushes of weeds are germinated and flamed or hoed off. Flaming avoids bringing any new weed seeds to the surface. To sow large crop seeds into a seedbed that has already had the weeds removed (by flaming or other stale seedbed technique), you can use a stick seeder or easy-plant jab planter. Making furrows for small seeds will inevitably activate a few weed seeds along the rows.

Flame weeding, pre-emergence

Flame weeding a carrot bed.
Photo Kati Falger

Carrots, beets and parsnips are ideal crops for pre-emergence flame-weeding. They do very poorly with competition, and grow more slowly than weeds, consuming lots of time hoeing, cultivating and hand weeding to get good yields. Flame weeding can change all that, with pre-emergence either as part of a stale seedbed technique, or post-sowing.

The latter method is to prepare the bed, sow the seeds, water, and then monitor carefully. The day before you expect the carrots to emerge, flame across the whole surface of the bed. Use a soil thermometer and the table here to figure out which day to flame.

Table of vegetable seed germination as a function of soil temperature

 

Days to Germinate 50F (10C) 59F (15C) 68F (20C) 77F (25C) 86F (30C) 95F (35C)
Carrots 17.3 10.1 6.9 6.2 6.0 8.6
Beets 16.7 9.7 6.2 5.0 4.5 4.6
We sow “indicator beets” with our carrots so that we know when to flame-weed them
Photo Kathryn Simmons

People who use pre-emergence flame-weeding for carrots can use a few “indicator beet” seeds sown at one end of the bed to show when to flame. As soon as you see the red loops of the beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case!) Beets are always a bit quicker than carrots in germinating. Note that beets are about half a day ahead of carrots at 50°F–68°F (10°C–20°C), but more than a day at 77°F–95°F (25°C–35°C). The challenge with carrots is to keep the soil surface damp until they come through. As an indicator for beet seeds, you can use a few radish seeds.

Another way to get an alarm call is to put a piece of glass over part of a row. The theory is that the soil under the glass will be warmer and the crop there will come up sooner than the rest. I tried this once, but the soil under the glass dried out, and those carrots came up later than the rest! Nowadays we have a “no glass in the garden” rule, for safety, so I use beets, the thermometer and the chart.

See the useful resource Flame Weeding for Vegetable Crops  from ATTRA

Flame-weeding growing crops

Potatoes can get impossible to hill when you’d like to if you have wet weather, and this is where flaming can save the day. Potatoes may be flamed at 6″–12″ (15–30 cm) tall, to kill weeds without damaging the potato plants. After that, flaming is not recommended.

Sweet corn can be flame-weeded after planting, either pre-emergence or, with care, after the crop is two inches (5 cm) tall, using a directed flame.

Onion and garlic crops can be flame-weeded when relatively mature. Flame-weeding can achieve as good results as hand-weeding using one-third of the labor. Flame-weeding can damage young plants (four or fewer leaves), so bide your time. Direct the flame at the base of the plants, in the morning, when the plants are turgid. This technique is for unmulched crops. Naturally, if you have used straw or hay mulch, flame-weeding is not such a smart idea!

Peanut seedlings can be slow to emerge, so pre-emergence flame-weeding may be helpful. The seedlings look somewhat like peas or clover. Because they grow slowly for the first 40 days, they will not thrive if you lose them in weeds (guess how I know?!).

Flaming for ending potato growth

Potato plants come to a natural end when the leaves die, after which no further growth can be induced in them. Once the tops die, the potato skins start to toughen up. If you are growing storage potatoes and are impatient for the end to come, you can mow off the tops or flame them, to start the skin-thickening process, which takes around two weeks. The potatoes are ready when you can rub two together without any obvious damage to the skins.

Flaming for pest control

Pest habitat includes all those half-wild edges and odd corners. You can reduce the pest count in these havens by mowing, hand weeding, or flaming. Be sure not to remove all the habitat for beneficial insects while you do this.

Colorado Potato beetle late stage larva
Photo Pam Dawling

Colorado potato beetles can be tackled by flaming while the potatoes are less than eight inches (20 cm) tall, as an effective pest control measure. It won’t kill the potato plants. Choose a warm sunny day when the pests are at the top of the plants. Flaming can kill 90 percent of the adults and 30 percent of the egg masses, according to ATTRA.

Harvesting from bean plants with bad bean beetle damage.
Photo Wren Vile

Mexican bean beetles can be killed by flaming after harvest for that planting is finished. Flaming will kill the plants too. We used to plant six or seven successions of beans, every two weeks, then flame the old plants when the pest count got too high, and move on to a newer planting. Nowadays we buy the Pediobius parasitic wasp to deal with the MBB, and we can sow beans less often and harvest them for longer.

Flaming trap crops

Young turnips (with flea beetles!) in need of thinning for cooking greens.
Photo Pam Dawling

Flea beetles can be lured by a row of mustard greens. They like the pungent compounds in brassicas. Once you have lured the flea beetles you need to deal with them before you create a flea beetle breeding ground. Flaming the mustard plants is one possibility.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower. Photo Pam Dawling

Cucumber beetles  have a preference for some particular squash varieties, which may be grown as a trap crop: Cocozelle summer squash, Seneca and Dark Green zucchini are all “cucumber beetle preferred”! When beetles accumulate in the trap crop, flame it or till it in.

Stink bugs: Russ Mizell has published a paper on trap cropping for native stink bugs in the South. He recommends buckwheat, triticale, sunflower, millet, field pea and sorghum. A succession of trap crops including these and others such as pumpkins, cowpeas and other small grains (which are most attractive in the milk or soft dough stage) could help. Flame the trap crops when the stink bug numbers in the trap crop build up.

Excerpted and adapted from Sustainable Market Farming

Repurposed stroller makes a fine flame weeder.
Photo Sustainable Harvest Farm Kentucky

Early Lettuce Production

Young Salad Bowl lettuce
Photo Wren Vile

Early Lettuce Production

Growing early season lettuces involves choosing suitable types and varieties (cold-tolerant and fast-growing), having successful production methods, and a good schedule. Harvesting early in the year might mean fast production in January and February, or it might mean starting in the fall and overwintering the plants. See my post series Lettuce of the Month, for ideas on varieties and techniques throughout the year.

Our Climate Zone in central Virginia is 7a, which means our annual minimum temperature averages 0°F to 5°F (-18 to -15°C).  The average date of the last spring frost is April 30 (later than 5/14 one year in 10). We grow lettuce outside from transplants from February to December, in a solar greenhouse from October to early March, and in a solar-heated double-layer hoophouse from October to April.

Swordleaf, Red Salad Bowl and Bronze Arrow lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Lettuce Types

There are several different general types of lettuces. In terms of growing speed, the baby lettuce mixes and the leaf lettuces produce harvests soonest after sowing. Loose-leaf lettuces are very useful because you can harvest individual leaves while you’re waiting for the heads to reach full size.

Leaf types are ready for harvest 45-60 days from direct seeding, 30-45 days from transplanting. Bibbs mature in 60-75 days, most head lettuce need up to 80 days from seeding, or 60-70 days from transplanting in spring. Romaines are slower-growing (70 days or more). Batavian lettuces (also called French Crisp) are tasty, thick-leafed varieties that have excellent heat and cold tolerance. Icebergs mature in 75-100 days.

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
photo Wren Vile

Baby lettuce can be cut 21 days from seeding, (except from November to mid-February, when it may take 2 or 3 times as long).

Bolt-resistance generally goes from Leaf types (first to bolt), through Romaines, Butterheads, Bibbs, to Crispheads.

I like to sow four lettuce varieties each time (for the attractive harvests, and to reduce the risks if one variety bolts or suffers disease): at least one red and one romaine. We have 5 lettuce seasons, with different varieties:

  1. Early Spring (Jan – Mar), 6 sowings
  2. Spring (April – May 15), 5 sowings
  3. Summer (May 15 – Aug 15), 17 sowings
  4. Fall (Aug 15 – Sept 7), 9 sowings
  5. Winter indoors, Sept 8 – 27, 9 sowings

 Lettuce Varieties

Bronze Arrow lettuce ultra-closeup. Photo Bridget Aleshire

It’s important to grow the right lettuce variety for the conditions. For earliest harvests, consider a different, faster, variety than you have usually grown. Some of the early spring lettuce varieties are often useless here if sown after mid-March, or even mid-February, because they bolt prematurely as the Virginia spring flips from cold to hot (and back again, grrr!). Varieties we only sow until 2/15 include Bronze Arrowhead (46 day leaf lettuce); Buckley, Ezrilla and Hampton (55d multi-leaf types); Merlot (60d), Midnight Ruffles (48d) and Oscarde (45d) (leaf lettuces). Antares (48d) Panisse (48d) and Revolution (38d) leaf lettuces we can sow until 3/15.

Nancy bibb lettuce
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Others that we like in early spring go on to be useful later in spring too. In this category are Buttercrunch (a small 50d bibb); Nancy (58d) and Sylvesta (52d) (two big green bibbs); Pirat (55d red bibb), Green Forest (56d), Kalura (57d) (two green romaines); and New Red Fire (55d), our reliable Salad Bowl (45d) and Red Salad Bowl (46d), Starfighter (52d), and Swordleaf (53d) (leaf lettuces)

New Red Fire lettuce.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

The baby lettuce mixes we like are Fedco’s 2981 LO Lettuce Mix OG (contains at least six different lettuces) or Johnny’s Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix #2310 (including green and red oakleaf, green and red romaine, lollo rossa, and red leaf lettuces). One gram sows 25 ft, one ounce will sow about 600 feet.

For those with challenging growing conditions, both companies offer other specialized selected mixes.

Cold-tolerance of lettuce

Red Tinged Winter and Tango lettuce in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lettuce is more cold tolerant than many people realize. If plants are sufficiently hardened (prepared by growing in gradually lower temperatures), they can withstand freezing. At 22°F (-6°C), large leaves of some lettuce will die. Medium-sized plants with 4-10 leaves (Marvel of Four Seasons, Olga, Rouge d’Hiver, Tango, Winter Density may survive unprotected down to 15°F (-9.5°C). Half-grown lettuces are more cold-hardy than full-sized plants.

Lettuce Crop Requirements

Flats of lettuce transplants in our cold frame in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lettuce seed remains dormant unless triggered by adequate levels of light and temperature. It needs light to germinate, so don’t sow too deep: ¼-3/8″ (6-9 mm) is enough. Some sources recommend not covering the seed at all, but this can make it hard to keep the seed damp. The light dormancy is more pronounced in fresh seed, which has higher levels of the hormone that controls germination.

Soil temperature is important. I have a table of optimum soil temperatures for germination in The Year-Round Hoophouse The optimum temperature range for lettuce germination is 68-80°F (20-27°C). It takes 7 days to germinate with a soil temperature of 50°F (10°C) or 15 days at 41°F (5°C), and only 4 days at 59°F (15°C). Even a few hours at temperatures higher than the optimum can induce dormancy.

Lettuce transplants prefer a well-draining soil high in organic matter, and with a pH of 6.0-7.0, not lower. Optimum growing temperatures are 60-65°F (15-18°C), with a minimum of 40°F (4.5°C) for any growth to occur. Lack of water will lead to bolting, and/or bitterness. Keep them growing quickly for good flavor.

Lettuce in January

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We plan to start harvesting heads of lettuce outdoors from April 15. Before then we will harvesting lettuce in our greenhouse and hoophouse.

In mid-January we sow four lettuce varieties, to become our first outdoor transplants. I recommend sowing several varieties each time to spread your risks, if one kind bolts or suffers disease. I choose varieties that cover the range of colors and shapes. I select hardy types that are fast-maturing. Buttercrunch green bibb lettuce is one of my favorites for early spring. One of the Salad Bowl lettuces, red or green, is also usually in my first sowing. The Salad Bowls are so reliable and productive! New Red Fire has become another reliable lettuce stand-by for us. It was suggested to me by neighboring Virginia farmer, Gary Scott of Twin Springs Farm. It is more of a leaf lettuce, and doesn’t exactly head up, although it can be cut as admittedly lightweight heads. It works fine as a leaf lettuce, harvested by the cut-and-come-again method. We grow New Red Fire year round, it’s that adaptable and easy-going. We haven’t found many good full-size red romaines. Bronze Arrow  has worked well for us and we were harvesting it in early May.

We grow all our outdoor lettuce as transplants. In spring we sow in 3″ (7.5cm) deep open wood seed flats, 12″ x 24″ (30 x 60cm). We make four little furrows by pressing a 12″ (30 cm) plastic strip (aka a ruler!) into the seed compost. We sow the seed, label it, cover it lightly, water, and put the seeded flats in our germinator cabinet. The first flat of the year takes about 9 days to germinate.

Spotting cabbage seedlings from a seed flat into a transplant flat.
Photo Wren Vile

Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, we spot them out into 4″ (10 cm) deep flats (also 12″ x 24″/30 x 60cm). We have a plywood dibble board with pegs evenly spaced about 2.5″ (6 cm) apart. We aim to harden off the lettuce for two weeks in the cold frame before transplanting into the garden beds with thick rowcover on hoops to protect the lettuce from the still-cold outdoors. To be ready for harvest 4/15, these seeds have to become full size lettuces in 88 chilly days.

Seeds can instead be sown in cell packs or plug flats, putting three seeds in each cell, and later reducing to one seedling with scissors. Cells or pots with diameters from 1-2½” (2.5-6cm) can be used. The 96-cell size (1×1½”/2.5x4cm) works well, although the 200-cell size (1×1”/2.5×2.5cm) is possible if you can be sure to get the transplants out before they get root-bound. If warm germination space is limited in early spring, sow seed in a small flat, then “spot” the tiny seedlings into bigger flats, 606 (2×2¼”/2.5x6cm) cell packs, or 32-pack square pots to grow on in cooler conditions before planting out. Soil blocks are also possible, but take more time.

We make a second sowing on January 31. The intervals between sowings at the beginning of the year are long, because later sowings will catch up to some extent with earlier ones. Most crops grow faster in warmer weather.

Lettuce in February

We sow lettuce twice in February – 14 days apart. We get ready to transplant our first outdoor lettuce, to feed us mid-late April. Our first sowing of baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse comes to the bitter end, and the second sowing is awaited. We continue to harvest leaves from the large lettuce we transplanted in the hoophouse in October.

Lettuce in March

Lettuce with sclerotinia drop.
Photo Pam Dawling

We sow flats of lettuce every 10 days in March. March 9 is our goal for a transplanting date outdoors for our first 120 lettuce (about one week’s worth for 100 people).

Here is a link to a helpful publication from eXtension: Disease Management in Organic Lettuce Production. Horribly useful photos!

Baby Lettuce Mix

Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall, longer in early spring. A direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. We sow 10 rows in a 4’ (1.2m) bed, 4.5” (11cm) apart. Weed and thin to 1″ (2.5 cm). When 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cut 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut with using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds. Rake after harvest with a fine leaf rake to remove outer leaves and cut scraps. If you want to make more than one cut, you will need to remove anything that isn’t top quality salad while you can see it. Larger scale operations have harvesting machines.