Cooking Greens in September

Fall-grown senposai.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in September

Chard and senposai are available here all month (and longer).

Some of the unusual warm weather cooking greens, such as Malabar Spinach, sweet potato vine tips, okra leaves, molokhia (Egyptian spinach, related to okra), manihot (aibika) are still edible in early September. See the July and August posts for more about those.

Yukina savoy, komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, pak choy, Tokyo Bekana and Chinese cabbage, can be available throughout September, if they were sown in late June or early July.

At last it is the season here for delicious new cooking greens! Broccoli (from 9/10), cauliflower (from 9/15), beet greens (from 9/20), cabbage (from 9/25), turnip greens (from 9/25), and collards from late September.

We may still have spring cabbage in the cooler, if we had a good harvest.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in September

September is a busy month for sowing greens outdoors. We want the crops to be established before cold weather, so they can make growth throughout the winter whenever it’s warm enough (anything above 40F (4.4C) is warm enough for kale, spinach and lettuce to grow a bit.).

Young tatsoi plants in our early hoophouse bed September 25.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also prepare and plant our first hoophouse bed. That post is  an excerpt from The Year-Round Hoophouse © Pam Dawling and New Society Publishers.

Here’s our day-by-day schedule for both outdoors and our hoophouse:
  • September 6: Direct sow in the hoophouse: spinach #1, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beets
  • September 7: Last date for first round of kale sowings outdoors.
  • By September 15: Sow outdoors if not done yet: kohlrabi, kale and collards; Hoop and net.
  • Early-mid September: Sow spinach #1 outdoors (pre-sprouted). We have trialed various spinach varieties for our hoophouse and for outdoors, and our current favorites are Reflect (outdoors) and Acadia (both outdoors and in the hoophouse).
  • September 15: our first round of nursery sowings for the hoophouse: pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo bekana, chard, (as well as lettuce and frilly mustards for salad mixes). Two or three times in September we sow crops in an outdoor bed to be bare-root transplanted at about 3 weeks old into newly prepared hoophouse beds. This gives the warm weather hoophouse crops (including cover crops) longer to grow, and also gives the seeds cooler conditions to germinate in. Because the pest pressure outdoors is fierce at that time of year, we hoop and net these very important plants. Our rough formula for all transplanted fall brassicas is to sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12’–15’ (3.6–4.6 m) of crop row, aiming for three seeds per inch (about 1 cm apart).
  • September 15 is our last date for resowing kale outdoors, if we are to get any winter harvests from it.
  • Mid-September: Sow spinach in the coldframes. In spring we will use the coldframes to harden off seedlings, but over the winter they make a nice sheltered space to grow more spinach. We will cover the coldframes in the middle of winter. An advantage of using the coldframes for spinach is that the area around the frames is all mulched, and accessible regardless of the weather.
  • By mid-September: Sow turnips outdoors, hoop and net them.
  • September 20-30: Sow spinach #2 outdoors for spring harvest. The goal here is to provide a succession of spinach harvests. This later sowing will size up in early spring and give good harvests before the newly transplanted spring spinach, and be better quality and more abundant than the beds sown in early September.
  • September 24: nursery sowings #2 for the hoophouse: we first -resow any failed #1 sowings; and also sow Red Russian kale, White Russian kale, senposai, Yukina Savoy, Frilly Mustards, and more lettuce. We hoop and net.
  • Late September: Sow Eat-All Greens See the Special Topic for September below.
  • September 30: As needed we resow any of the hoophouse transplants that we are short of.

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in September

An outdoor bed of young Vates kale Photo Kathryn Simmons

In early September, we transplant collards and kale if we didn’t finish in August.

We only grow Vates kale, a very cold-hardy dwarf Scotch curled type outdoors. When the kale is about 3-4 weeks old, we use plants from any of the beds to fill out any other (if we have enough spare plants). We resow if the survival rate is really poor. We eat any extra plants.

In late September, we finish the kale gap-filling. From then on, what we see is what we’ll get.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in September

Weed and thin kale to 12”

To improve spinach seed germination we have put spinach seeds in the freezer in mid-August or earlier (at least two weeks). We reclaim it from the freezer and let the waterproof container warn up to ambient temperatures before opening it. Otherwise condensation will land on the seeds and ruin them for future sowings.

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

To presprout spinach, measure the required amount of seed, put it in a jar and cover with water overnight. Fit a mesh screen lid (a piece of window screen held on a Mason jar by the metal band works well, although you can buy longer-lasting metal or plastic mesh lids too. In the morning, strain off the water, turn the jar on its side, shake out the seeds to lie along the side of the jar, and lay the jar in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to shuffle the seeds and even out the moisture. You are not growing bean sprouts, and you do not need to rinse and drain the spinach seeds. After 6 or 7 days, the seeds will have sprouted enough to plant by hand. Perhaps spread the seeds to dry for an hour on a tray or a cloth. If the seeds stick together as you start to plant, mix in a little dry, inert, absorbent material like uncooked corn grits, bran or oatmeal (but not sticky bread flour).

Beet seeds can also be presprouted, but a bit more care is needed, as it is easy to drown beet seeds. Soak them in water for only an hour or two, and do not use much more water than needed. I realize that’s a tall order the first time you do this, as you won’t know how much is too much! Err on the side of caution! Don’t let the sprouts grow very long, as they are brittle. A short red sprout is all you need.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for September: Eat-All Greens

I introduced the topic of Virginian Eat-All Greens in my blog in November 2015.

Young rows of September-sown Eat-All Greens in early October.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening explained the concept and the practice of growing Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives. I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, and we sowed some on September 16 that year. We hadn’t planned ahead, and didn’t have the perfect range of seeds (see The Tao of Vegetable Gardening for that). We experimented with seeds we had on hand or could get quickly, and we sowed in rows rather than broadcast, because we knew we had a lot of weed seeds in the soil.

Carol Deppe has an article on How to Easily Grow High-Yielding Greens in Mother Earth News Feb/March 2016, which you can read about here

A section of Eat-All Greens in October.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We harvested in October and for the third time on 11/3, and several more times. By December 22, I was noting “Our Eat-All Greens are still alive, if not exactly thriving. The peas have been harvested to death; the kohlrabi, beets and chards are never going to amount to anything; some of the more tender Asian mustard greens are showing some frost damage. On 12/10 we made one last crew foray to harvest – not greens, but roots!” We harvested two and half buckets of radishes and 5 gallons of turnips before the end of the year. I’m not sure how many harvests of cooking greens we’d had, but it felt plentiful..

Some Eat-All Greens in early November.
Photo Lori Katz

On January 12 I noted: “We had a low temperature of 6F on January 5th. Not much [of the Eat-All Greens patch] is left alive. Always enthusiastic to keep updating my list of cold-hardy winter vegetable crops, I took my notebook and walked the rows a few days later.”

I wrote up our Eat-All Greens for Growing for Market magazine and you can read it in the January 2016 issue. We thoroughly enjoyed the experiment, and the sight of all those rows of abundant greens in the late fall and early winter.

Frosty Mizuna in our Eat-All Greens in December.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Potato Research, Mother Earth News Fair PA and Heritage Harvest Festival

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle

Potato Research on Harvest and Storage

Last week I mentioned that while researching potato yield figures, I found an interesting publication, The Potato Association of America, Commercial Potato Production in North America 2010. I’ve been reading that and learning more about potatoes. Here I’m going to focus on harvest and storage, because that’s the bit we’re currently challenged by. I also learned more about planting in hot weather, but that’s for another time.

Potato harvest.
Photo Nina Gentle

In England we planted in spring and harvested in October, waiting for the frost to kill the vines. In Virginia we plant in March and June, harvesting in July and October. We have grown Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold and Kennebec here, mostly. They all seem to be determinate varieties. I only just learned there are determinate (varieties with naturally self-limiting growth, generally “early” varieties) and indeterminate varieties (such as “Russet Nugget,” “Nicola,” “German Butterball” and “Elba”). The distinction is explained in Potato Bag Gardening. Growers using towers, grow bags, and cage systems want indeterminate potatoes, which continue to produce more layers of tubers on the stems as they are progressively covered with more soil. Growers wanting a fast reliable crop in the field mostly choose determinate types, which grow as a bush, then flower and die. The Wild Woolly Web does seem to have some contradictory statements about which varieties are determinate and which indeterminate, and some dedicated container growers make assertions not supported by experienced commercial growers. So Reader Beware! I trust Extension and here’s a link to their Ask an Expert page on potato types, and the University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Info Center Potatoes.

June-planted potatoes in early September
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Whether the vines die naturally at the end of their lifespan, or they die of disease, or the frost kills them, or you kill them yourself by mowing or flaming, the potatoes will store better if you then wait 2-3 weeks before harvesting. The potato skins thicken up (becoming more resistant to scrapes and bruises) and the potatoes become higher in dry matter. Harvesting is easier if the vines are well dead. We generally bush-hog ours. Decades ago, in England, we had late blight in the middle of the season, and we cut the tops off and made a very smoky bonfire. (I wouldn’t participate in that much air pollution nowadays!) After waiting for a couple of weeks for the late blight spores to die, we dug the potatoes. The idea was to prevent spores getting on the tubers. As I remember, it all worked out OK.

If at all possible, harvest when the soil moisture is 60-80% of field capacity. Not too dry, not too wet. This reduces damage from scraping. If using a digger, don’t set it digging too deep, or too much soil will be damped on the harvested potatoes.

Tuber temperature will also impact bruise and rot susceptibility. Ideally soil temperature will be 45-65F (7-18C).  Because soil temperature lags 3-4 hours behind air temperature rise each day, in cold weather, try to harvest around 6 pm or a bit later. In hot weather, harvest in the morning.

When freshly harvested, potatoes are tender, breathing things. Avoid bruising, which is damage that does not break the skin, by not dropping potatoes more than 6” (15 cm), or throwing them towards a container. Don’t bang them to knock off extra soil.

When harvesting in summer, we stack the crates of potatoes under a big tree overnight to lose some of the field heat before moving them to the root cellar early next morning. Potatoes you take from storage can be no better than the quality of the potatoes you put into storage!

The first part of the storage period is the curing. The potatoes are still actively respiring, so they need a good oxygen supply. Failure to ventilate the cellar enough can lead to Black-heart, where the inner tissue of the potatoes dies and turns black. During the curing period, the skins further toughen up, and cut surfaces and superficial wounds heal over, enabling long term storage. The temperature should be as close to 50-58F (10-14.4C) as you can get. The lower end of the range is best for fresh eating (as opposed to junk food manufacture). Hotter temperatures will promote more rot, and age the potatoes faster, leading to early sprouting. Relative humidity should be 90%, but not 100%! If there is too much condensation, use a fan and open the cellar doors, when temperatures are closest to the goal. Curing takes 10-14 days.

Sorting potatoes .
Photo Wren Vile

We find that a single thorough sorting after 14 days can remove almost all of the storage problems that are going to happen. Not sorting at this point lets rots spread.

After the curing period, the potatoes become more dormant and do not respire so actively. They don’t need as many air changes as during curing, but if the cellar is too warm, you will need to aerate more. The temperature during the storage period should be 40-50F (4.4-10C), and closer to the lower end of the range is best. Constant temperatures or a steady decline is the goal, not dramatic fluctuations. Humidity should still be 90-95%, to keep weight loss to a minimum.

Potatoes have a natural dormancy of 60-130 days (depending on the storage temperature). After that period, they will start to sprout. Some plant extracts, including clove oil, can add 20-30 days storage, and will then need to be reapplied. I do not know anything about this myself, and do wonder how you remove the clove flavor from the potatoes!

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Speaking Events

I have two speaking events coming up in September
Mother Earth News Fair

2019 Mother Earth News Fair Pennsylvania.

September Friday 13- Sunday 15, 2019
Location: Seven Springs Mountain Resort, 777 Waterwheel Dr., Seven Springs, Pa. 15622

I am giving two 60 min workshops

Hoophouse winter lettuce: Green Forest, and Red Salad Bowl, two of our fifteen varieties.
Photo Wren Vile

Lettuce Year-Round on Friday 9/13 12.30-1.30 pm at the Grit Stage

This presentation includes techniques to extend the lettuce season using row covers, cold frames, and hoop houses to provide lettuce harvests in every month of the year. The workshop includes a look at varieties for spring, summer, fall, and winter. Pam Dawling considers the pros and cons of head lettuce, leaf lettuce, baby lettuce mix, and the newer multileaf types. She also provides information on scheduling and growing conditions, including how to persuade lettuce to germinate when it’s too hot.

Cool Season Hoophouse Crops on Saturday 9/14 3.30-4.30 pm at the Building and Energy Stage

Learn how to fill your hoop house with productive food crops in the cool seasons. Pam Dawling discusses suitable crops, cold-hardiness, selecting crops, calculating how much to harvest and how much to plant, crop rotation, mapping, scheduling, seasonal transitions, succession planting, interplanting, and follow-on cropping.

Book-signing at the Bookstore Saturday 4.30-5 pm. Buy new books at the Bookstore and bring your grubby used copies to be signed too!

Demos at New Society Publishers booth, of tomato string-weaving and wigglewire system for fastening hoophouse plastic to framework
Friday 3 -3.30 pm, 4.30-5 pm; Saturday 10-11 am, 1.30-2.30 pm; Sunday 9-10 am. 1-2 pm, 3.30-4 pm

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Heritage Harvest Festival, Monticello, Charlottesville, VA

September Friday and Saturday 21-22, 2019
Buy tickets online
Workshop with Ira Wallace
10:30 – 11:30 am Saturday in the Heritage Tent

Winter Gardening: No Tech to High Tech 

Learn tips on growing cold-hardy vegetables (not only kale!) out in the open and with varying degrees of protection from rowcovers, low tunnels, coldframes and hoophouses (high tunnels). We’ll consider crop choices, planting dates and harvesting so there’s always something to eat for everyone from winter market gardeners to small backyard growers. We’ll explain ways to maximize production with succession planting and follow-on cropping.

 No extra fee for the workshop, included with the price of general admission

Booksigning: SATURDAY, SEPT. 21st, 11:45am – 12:15pm, MONTICELLO SHOP TENT (WEST LAWN). Buy new books at the Bookstore and bring your grubby used copies to be signed too!

December view in our hoophouse, showing lettuce mix and turnips.
Photo Wren Vile

Ice for lettuce seed; Mistake in my book; fall sowings

Ice cubes over newly sown lettuce seed, to help germination in hot weather.
Photo Bell Oaks

The photo above shows our strategy for germinating lettuce seed when the soil is too hot (above about 84F (29C). First I shade the soil for several days to cool it, and I keep it moist. Then I sow late in the day, cover the seeds with soil, tamp down, water with fresh-drawn cold water, set out ice cubes along the rows, cover with shadecloth and retire for a relaxing cup of tea. One tray of ice cubes is enough for a 4ft (1.2 m) row.

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I just got this email pointing out a mistake in Sustainable Market Farming. So get a red pen and fix your copy today! An observant reader said:

“Hi! I just read the section on potatoes in your book “Sustainable Market Farming” and was a bit confused because of the yield numbers on page 376. You write “Yields are likely to be 150 lbs/ac (168 kg/ha); 200 lbs/ac (224 kg/ha) is a good yield”.

I’m currently working on a farm where we get 200-250kg of potatoes from one 100m row, that’s the number you say is a good yield per hectare… And I don’t even think our yield is particularly good, because there was a lot of damage in the potatoes (green ones, wireworm, slugs, scab). So I guess your numbers are just a mistake?”

Yes, my mistake indeed! On page 45, I have the (better!) info that potatoes can yield at least 110 pounds/100 feet, or 49.9 kg/30m. I think I probably meant to write on page 376, that a low yield could be 150 pounds/100ft, which is equivalent to 11 tons/acre. In the metric system, that’s 223 kg/100m, or 24.4 tons/ha. Other sources suggest average yields could be almost twice this. And good yields, even 4 times the low numbers.

So it should say

“Yields are likely to be 11 tons/ac (24.4 tons/ha); 22 tons/ac (48.8 tons/ha) is a good yield”

That’s US tons of 2000 pounds, metric tons of 1000 kg. Or for a smaller scale, probably closer to what most of us are growing,

“Yields are likely to be 150 lbs/100ft (223 kg/100m); 200 lbs/100 ft (300 kg/100m) is a good yield”

I hope I’ve got all the conversions right. Let me know if I haven’t!

While researching yield figures, I found an interesting publication, The Potato Association of America, Commercial Potato Production in North America 2010.

Potato harvesting

The month of August is when we establish crops that will feed us in the fall and winter.

We sowed carrots August 8 and are now hoeing them and hand-weeding and thinning. We flamed these carrots on day 4 after sowing, because we have found that carrots can emerge on day 5 when it is as warm it can be in August. The idea is to flame the beds the day before the carrots are due to emerge. Flame-weeding is a great way to get rid of millions of fast-growing weeds and leave the field free for the slow-growing carrots. We still have to weed and thin once or twice as the carrots (and weeds) grow, but it is much easier to see the carrots, and they grow better if the first flush of weeds has been flamed off.

Some years all goes smoothly, and some years not! This year we had two snags. One is that the carrots were mistakenly sowed an inch deep, instead of near the surface. Of course, this delays emergence, so by the time the carrots made it through that inch of soil, many new weeds had sprung up too. The second challenge was that our well pump has not been working right, and we have not had enough irrigation water. And until this past week, we had a very hot dry spell.

Looking forward to lush beds of fall carrots.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

But now we are making forward progress. Twin Oaks can eat 30+ bags (50 lbs, 23 kg each) of carrots during the winter, so we try really hard to grow a big crop of fall carrots.

We sowed cucumbers 8/2 and they are up well. The 8/5 beans look very good indeed.

Young bean bed.
Photo Pam Dawling

The first two beds of kale (sowed 8/8) came up well, thanks to diligent hand-watering. The second two (8/12) are also up, and it’s just a day too soon to say the third (8/17) are just as good. Sowing two beds of kale at a time is a good strategy allowing us to focus the hand watering on the not-yet-emerged beds, for best success. We try to have the pairs of beds very near each other, to make dragging the hoses easier. This year we even sowed some back-up flats of kale, because last year’s kale had such a hard time getting established. (It might have been cutworms or grasshoppers).

Young Vates kale.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

The squash was sown a little late this year (8/10 rather than 8/5) but there is still hope. Our average first frost is 10/20 (our average over the last 13 years), so with a 54 days to maturity (from direct seeding) squash like Zephyr, we reckon on sowing 68 days before that first frost – or more to allow for seasonal cooling and even an early frost. That’s 8/13 absolute last date. We’ll use rowcover once fall cools down, but we do hope for a decent yield before the plants get killed.

Our fall turnips are doing well. We sowed them 8/7 under insect netting. here you see a row of radishes squeezed in at the edge of the bed. We often do this with radishes because we only want 90ft (27 m) at once. Kale beds are another place we sometimes sow radishes. Because radishes grow so fast, they will be gone by the time the slower, bigger crops need the space. And because they don’t get tall, they can be at the edge of the beds without getting in our way as we walk along.

Young turnips with a row of radishes squeezed into the bed.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

 

Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes

Solarizing to combat nematodes. Photo Pam Dawling

Solarization

Solarization is a method of killing pests, diseases and weed seeds near the surface of the soil by covering the soil with clear plastic for six weeks or more in hot weather. We use this method to help control nematodes in our hoophouse. Nematodes are only active in warm weather, and we have not had problems with them outdoors, but of course, it’s warmer in the hoophouse!

I’ve written before about solarization to fight nematodes in our hoophouse.

In my Book Review: The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, Andrew Mefferd, I wrote a little about solarizing:

“Solarization uses clear plastic (old hoophouse plastic is ideal). In a summer hoophouse, solarization can be as quick as 24 hours, Andrew says. When we’ve done this, one of our goals was to kill nematodes and fungal diseases, not just weeds, so we waited a few weeks. Outdoors it takes several weeks. You can see when the weeds are dead. Bryan O’Hara poked a thermometer probe through solarization plastic and found a 50F degree (28C) difference between the outside air and the soil immediately under the plastic; a 10F (6C) difference at 1″ (2.5 cm) deep and little temperature gain lower than that. Solarization does not kill all the soil life!”

Extension offers Solarization and Tarping for Weed Management on Organic Vegetable Farms in the Northeast USA which can, of course, be modified for those of us in other regions.

Solarizing to combat nematodes: Step on a spade to push the plastic down into a slot in the soil.
Photo Pam Dawling

Nematodes

I’ve written here before about our struggles with root knot nematodes in our hoophouse, and you can read everything I know about nematodes in the Year-Round Hoophouse.

My article on nematodes in Growing for Market  in November 2014 describes our discovery of the beasties and our first attempts to deal with them.

My most thorough blogpost about nematodes was for Mother Earth News  Managing Nematodes in the Hoophouse.

Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles).
Photo Pam Dawling

My post Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse August 2014 includes a photo of our first attempt at solarizing – a  bit of a How Not To!

There is info on dealing with nematodes from Garry Ross in Hawaii, where nematodes are a fact of daily life, in my post Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes from February 2015.

Cover Crop Choices

French marigolds and sesame to deter Root Knot nematodes in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In June this year I wrote about using marigolds, sesame, Iron and Clay cowpeas as nematode resistant cover crops. We’ve also used winter wheat, and white lupins. See Our Organic Integrated Pest Management . Other cover crops that suppress nematodes include some other OP French marigold varieties (but avoid Tangerine Gem or hybrid marigolds); chrysanthemum; black-eyed Susan; gaillardia (blanket flower, Indian blanket); oats; sesame/millet mix. We decided against sorghum-sudangrass (too big), winter rye (harder than wheat to incorporate by hand), bahiagrass, Bermuda grass (both invasive), castor bean and Crotolaria (sunnhemp) (both poisonous, although newer varieties of Crotolaria have lower toxin levels, and I’ve been rethinking my opposition to using that), partridge pea, California poppy (both require at least one full year of growth) and some obscure vetches that weren’t available locally. We might have included Pacific Gold mustard (B. juncea), if we’d found it in time. Don’t confuse this with Ida Gold Mustard, which kills weeds, and is susceptible to nematodes.

Food Crop Choices

 This list starts with the crops most resistant to Root Know Nematodes and ends with the most susceptible. I’ve included some “bookmarks” between categories, but it can also be read as a continuous list:

Scallions in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Most resistant

Strawberries

Rhubarb

Onion (? not certain)

Corn

West Indian Gherkins

Horseradish

Asparagus

Jerusalem Artichokes

Globe Artichokes

Radishes in our hoophouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fairly Resistant

Ground Cherry

Some Sweet Potato varieties

Radishes (? not certain)

Rutabagas

Garlic, Leeks, Chives

Cress

Brassica juncea mustards

Brassica rapa var. japonica greens (? Uncertain)

Broccoli, Kale, Collards, Brussels Sprouts

Red Russian kale from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in our hoophouse in March.
Photo Pam Dawling

Somewhat Susceptible:

Fall Turnips

Peas

Fall Spinach

Swiss Chard

Parsnips

New Zealand Spinach

Very Susceptible:

Lettuce

Cabbage

Cucumbers, Muskmelons, Watermelons, Squash, Pumpkins

Beans, Fava Beans, Soybeans

Okra

Beets

Carrots, Celery

Tomatoes, Eggplant, Peppers, Potatoes, Peanuts

Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills juncea mustards, very resistant to root-knit nematodes.
Photo Pam Dawling

Nematode-resistant winter greens

 We came up with a collection of nematode-resistant winter greens, including radishes, Russian kales, Brassica juncea mustards (mostly salad greens like Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills), and Brassica rapa var. japonica greens, mizuna and Yukina Savoy. We have since learned that Yukina Savoy is a Brassica rapa, not B. juncea as we thought, and that mizuna is Brassica rapa var. japonica with a less certain resistance, or perhaps Brassica rapa var. niposinica, or perhaps B.juncea after all (integrifolia type). We also grow scallions in the nematode-infested areas. Now I am looking for more nematode-resistant cold-weather greens.

Green mizuna in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

This Year

After the winter greens this spring, we transplanted two beds of tomatoes, one each of peppers, squash and cucumbers, and put two beds into Iron and Clay cowpeas. The eastern ends where we had found evidence of nematodes, we transplanted French marigolds and sesame as stronger fighting forces.

When we pulled up the squash and cucumbers  we found no sign of nematodes on the roots. One of the tomato beds produced no sign either, but the other one did. Our first response was to sow Iron and Clay cowpeas instead of the planned soybeans, but before the plants were even 2” (5 cm) high, we decided to solarize that whole bed. We now have small patches of nematode infestation in almost every bed, calling for a more nimble approach to crop planning.

Brassica juncea mustards to try

According to Wikipedia, Brassica juncea cultivars can be divided into four major subgroups: integrifolia, juncea, napiformis, and tsatsai.  I did some searching for more B. juncea, especially large leafed ones. Some promising looking crops include these:

“Green-in-Snow” mustard, Serifon gai choi type Chinese Mustard, Suehlihung.

Serifon (Suehlihung, Green-in-Snow) mustard. Kitazawa Seeds

“Red-in-Snow” mustard (sorry, no details)

Osaka Purple Mustard. Fedco Seeds

Giant Red, Osaka Purple, Southern Giant Curled Mustards, all quite pungent

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horned Mustard. Wild Garden Seeds

Horned Mustard

 

 

 

Miike Giant mustard. Kitazawa Seeds

Miike Giant

 

 

 

 

Hatakena Mustard. Kitazawa Seeds

 

Hatakena

Yanagawa Takana.
Kitazawa Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

Yanagawa Takana broad leaved mustard

 

 

 

Wasabina baby leaf mustard (wasabi flavor). Kitazawa Seeds

 

Wasabina

Modern Homesteading Interview, Things I’ve Changed My Mind On

Hoophouse squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Photo Alexis Yamashito

In April I did a pleasant phone interview with Harold Thornbro of the Modern Homesteading Podcast  about how year round gardening in a hoophouse can increase yields and the quality of vegetables and extend the growing season.

You can listen to it here:

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/modern-homesteading-podcast/e/60326060?autoplay=true

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The rest of this post is about the agricultural things I’ve changed my mind on in recent years.

Sowing Leeks
Leek seedlings growing in an outdoor nursery bed.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The first one that comes to mind is where and how to sow leeks. In Sustainable Market Farming I describe sowing leeks in outdoor nursery seedbeds. We grow leeks for eating from October to March, so even though leeks grow very slowly and need 12 weeks to transplant size, we don’t need to sow them super early in the year. Also because they are so cold-hardy, they don’t need greenhouse conditions. To save greenhouse space, and the bother of watering so many flats, we took to sowing them outdoors. To make this work, you do need weed-free beds. Leeks compete poorly with weeds. Sometimes things went wrong. One year someone decided to “seed-bomb” the fresh bed with poppy seeds. Weeding those tiny leek seedlings was torture! Another time, an overenthusiastic worker ran our new exciting wheel hoe too far onto the bed and eradicated part of a row.

Leek seedlings in flats in April.
Photo Pam Dawling

One year the leek seedling bed wasn’t ready in time to sow, and we sowed rows of seeds in a coldframe, after removing the winter spinach (or maybe we were still growing lettuce in the coldframes then.) This worked well. The next year we tried sowing the seeds in 4” (10cm) deep flats, and putting the flats into the coldframes right away (rather than germinating them in the greenhouse). Still no wasted greenhouse space! On very cold nights, we cover the coldframes, so it was a bit warmer than if we’d just sowed directly into an outdoor bed. The plants grew a bit quicker and we realized we didn’t need to start so early. They were easier to take to the field in the flats, compared to digging up the starts and carrying them in little buckets with water. We had reduced losses of seedlings, so we reduced the amount of seed sown in future years. It’s an easier system, with a more satisfying success rate.

Sunnhemp as a Cover Crop
Sunnhemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC.
Photo Pam Dawling

 Sunnhemp (Crotalaria juncea) is a warm weather leguminous cover crop that I’ve been admiring at various farms in the Southeast in recent years. I’ve been thinking it would be valuable ion our hoophouse and in our gardens. It fights root knot nematodes! I mentioned it recently at a crew meeting, only to be reminded that I previously spoke against growing it as the seed is poisonous! I’d completely forgotten my earlier opinion!

This summer cover crop can grow to 6’ (2m) in 60 days. It thrives in heat, tolerates drought, fixes nitrogen, suppresses nematodes, makes deep roots that pull nutrients from deep in the soil, and it dies with frost. It sounds fantastic, I really want to try it!  It looks a bit like small sunflowers, and according to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange  it  won’t make mature seed above 28 degrees N latitude , so won’t become a self-sowing invasive  in Virginia. Sow in rows 2’-3’ (0.6-1m) apart. If it gets too big, mow when plants reach 5’-8’ (1.5-2.5m) to prevent the stalks from becoming tough and hard to deal with. ¼ lb sows 250 sq ft. (¼ lb = 114 g, 250 sq ft = 23.2m2)

Sowing Sweet Corn
Young sweet corn with a sprinkler for overhead watering.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I mentioned earlier here, that I’ve changed my mind about the necessity to put up ropes over corn seed rows to keep the crows off. I suppose there are fewer crows these days, sigh. Not needing the ropes makes the benefits of sowing with the seeder greater than the benefits of sowing by hand, so long as we can irrigate sufficiently to get the seed germinated. When we sowed by hand we watered the furrows generously, which meant we did not need to water again until after the seedlings emerged. If we hit a serious drought, the old method could still be best. Overhead watering does germinate lots of weeds, including in the wide spaces between the corn rows, so we need to factor in the extra hoeing or tilling when we weigh up the pros and cons. So, I’m a “situational convert” on this question!

How to Kill Striped Cucumber Beetles
Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about these beasties here. We handpick the beetles in the hoophouse squash flowers, hoping to deal with the early generation and reduce future numbers. One year we had our first outdoor squash bed very close to the hoophouse and the beetles moved there. In desperation I used Spinosad, an organically approved pesticide. It is a rather general pesticide, and harms bees, so I carefully sprayed late in the day and covered the row with netting to keep bees off. It worked brilliantly, taking a fraction of the time that daily handpicking takes. I became a convert to that method, but no one else on the crew did, so we went back to hand-picking.

Pruning Tomatoes
Hoophouse tomatoes in early May
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I used to maintain that life is too short to prune tomatoes, which grow at a rapid rate in our climate, and get fungal diseases, necessitating sowing succession crops. The past couple of years I have removed lower leaves touching the soil, and this year I reduced the sideshoots on our hoophouse tomatoes, which are grown as an early crop here.(We’re about to pull them up in early August, as the outdoor ones are now providing enough). I do think we got fewer fungal diseases, and the diseases started later compared to other years, so I am now convinced that removing the lower leaves is very worthwhile. We also got bigger fruit this year, which logically fits with reducing the foliage some amount.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Compost?
Too much compost?? A commercial compost windrow turner.
Photo by Pam Dawling

I used to think the more compost the better. Now I am more aware that compost adds to the phosphorus level in the soil. I wrote about that here. I am not as alarmist as some people about high P in our situation, but I do now think it is worth paying attention and not letting the levels build too fast. I have got more enthusiastic about growing cover crops at every opportunity, and finding legumes to include in cover crop mixtures at every time of year (see above about sunnhemp). I was already a cover crop enthusiast, but as my experience increased, I got my mind round more possibilities.

Using Plastics
Rolling biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Photo Wren Vile

In my youth I was anti-plastic, If I were growing food just to feed myself, I’d probably still find ways to avoid almost all plastics, but growing on a commercial/professional scale (and getting older) has led me to appreciate plastics. I still don’t want to do plastic mulch, except the biodegradable kind, but I’ve come to accept durable light weight plastics for their benefits. Drip tape saves do much water, reduces weed growth. Plastic pots and flats are so much easier to lift! I do still pay attention and try to make plastics last a long time, and frequently salvage plastic containers others discard. I’m awed by the possibilities of silage tarps or old advertising banners, to keep down weeds without tilling and pre-germinate weed seeds so that when the covers are removed, few weeds grow. This was called by the awkward name of “occultation”, but is now more often referred to in English as tarping.

Hornworms

Lastly, I have a post on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening about hornworms, but you read it here first!

Cooking Greens in July

 

Early spring cabbage with alyssum to attract beneficial insects.
Photo Pam Dawling

Here in central Virginia in July, we have chard and spring cabbage for cooking greens, the last broccoli, and some collards early in the month.

Sowing the fall greens is well underway. We also start transplanting cooking greens this month – it’s very hot, but this is when we need to do it, to have the crops mature before it gets too cold for them.

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in July

See June’s Cooking Greens post for more about chard, a biennial that will not bolt in the summer heat. We can eat it whenever we like; it is always there, always harvestable, from late May to late December. It’s so easy to care for, and nothing bad happens if we ignore it. Some years it even survives our winters.

Our broccoli comes to an end in early July, when it gets bitter, and has only tiny side-shoots left. We are harvesting our cabbage. We sowed early cabbage in our greenhouse in late January and transplanted it around March 10. We sowed our main-crop cabbage February 7 and transplanted around April 1. In our early cabbage, we grew Farao (F1, 60d, 3lbs, 1.5 kg), Early Jersey Wakefield, (OP, 63d, 2-3lbs, -1.5 kg)), and flat, mid-sized, Tendersweet (F1 71d). For the maincrop, we have more Farao and Early Jersey Wakefield, along with Red Express, Kaitlin and Tribute.

A cabbage, with curled back leaf on the head, showing maturity.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We store cabbage beyond our immediate needs in net bags in the refrigerator. None of these spring varieties are long-storers, but they should see us through the summer until mid-October when we have fresh outdoor fall cooking greens. We eat a 50lb (23k) bag of cabbage each week, so we aim to get 12 bags into storage, by the time the harvest ends in mid-July. Additional cabbage beyond the 12 bags (if any) gets made into sauerkraut. Our main sauerkraut making season is when we harvest the fall cabbage, which is usually a bigger planting.

That’s it for cooking greens harvests here until late August, when our fall planting of Senposai will start to yield. Some years we have sowed Tokyo Bekana or Maruba Santoh for a quick harvest. Both are very fast growing tender chartreuse (yellow-green) leafy plants that can be served chopped and lightly cooked. Tokyo Bekana a Brassica rapa chinensis type and takes 45 days to full maturity. Maruba Santoh, Brassica rapa pekinensis, is similar to Tokyo Bekana but less frilly. Fairly bolt tolerant. Only 35 days to maturity.

We have sometimes planted these for salad leaves to get us through late summer lettuce shortages. The wide white stems of the mature plant provide crunch for salads, along with the delicate leaves; or the baby leaves can be harvested. Both have a mild flavor and even so, I have been surprised that many people don’t even notice they are not eating lettuce – I suppose enough salad dressing masks all flavors!

An adolescent Tokyo bekana plant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in July

In May, I described our planning for our fall brassica nursery seedbeds. In June I described our schedule of weekly sowings, hooping, netting, watering and weeding. Weeks 3-6 fall in July, so now I’ll tell you about those. Weeks 7 and 8 are in August.

We sow the fall brassicas weekly throughout July – see the Special Topic for June for all the details. Each week we resow anything from the previous week that did not germinate well or became casualties. We sow these top-ups for any varieties with germination less than 80%, in a fresh row, with a new label, to avoid confusion.

In week 3 of our Fall Brassica Transplanting Schedule, (the first week of July) we sow broccoli and cabbage for the second time (insurance!), and senposai, Yukina Savoy and Chinese cabbage (if we are growing it that year) for the first time.

In week 4, (the second week of July) we sow the Chinese cabbage, senposai and Yukina Savoy for the second time, and collards for the first time. If we have to resow broccoli or cabbage, we choose the faster-maturing varieties.

In week 5 (the third week of July) we sow collards for the second time. Week 6 has no new sowings, only resows for anything that didn’t come up well..

It’s also possible in warmer areas to sow Swiss chard or leaf beet for a fall crop. This might be a useful Plan B if some other crops have failed. The last planting date is ten weeks before frost. The winter-kill temperature is 15°F (–10°C) for multi-colored chard, 12°F (-11°C) for red chard and 10°F (-12°C) for green chard (Fordhook Giant). Asian greens can also be direct-sown this month. We prefer transplants for several reasons: it’s easier to protect close-packed seedlings from pests than whole beds; it gives us extra time to grow a round of buckwheat as cover crop in the beds, and improve the organic matter and reduce weeds.

A netted bed of brassica seedlings on July 4.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in July

Now is the time to prepare our plot for the fall broccoli and cabbage transplanting as I described in June, mark out the rows and start transplanting.

We aim to transplant most brassicas at 4 true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing in summer), but it often slips to 5 weeks before we get finished. I recommend transplanting crops at a younger age in hot weather than you would in spring, because larger plants can wilt from high transpiration losses. If we find ourselves transplanting older plants, we remove a couple of the older leaves to reduce these losses. It would make an interesting experiment to see which actually does best: 3 week transplants, 4 week transplants, or 5 week transplants with 2 leaves removed. Possibly the larger root mass of the older plants would be an advantage. On the other hand, old, large transplants can head prematurely, giving small heads. By that point in the year, my scientific curiosity has been fried by the sheer workload of crop production!

Week 4 (the second week of July): Transplant week 1 cabbage (especially the slower-growing “late” varieties). Cover: hoop and net or rowcover.

Week 5 (the third week of July): Transplant Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana, Maruba Santoh sown in week 3. Yes they really will be big enough at 2 week-old! Transplant week 2 sowings of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and any week 2 resows. Cover: hoop and net or rowcover.

Week 6 (the fourth week of July): Transplant week 3 sowings of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, senposai, Yukina Savoy, collards; week 4 Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana, Maruba Santoh, and any week 3 resows. Cover: hoop and net or rowcover.

We plan to have transplanting crews 6 days a week for an hour and a half or two hours in late afternoon or early evening, for 2-3 weeks, not counting the kale transplanting, which happens later. We water the seedlings one day and again one hour before digging them up. We plant to the base of the first true leaves, to give the stem good support, and we firm in well, so the roots have good contact with the soil, and do not die in an air pocket. After transplanting, we water generously within half an hour of planting, and again the third day, and the seventh, and then once a week. We use overhead sprinklers, and don’t easily have the option of watering every day. If you have drip irrigation, you can more easily give a little water in the middle of each day, which will help cool the roots.

A harvest cart with cabbage, kale, squash and lettuce.
Photo by Wren Vile

Other Cooking Greens Tasks for July

No visible brassicas month! In early July, the last of our spring brassica crops get harvested, and all the seedling brassica crops are under netting. There are no brassicas for the harlequin bugs to feed on and multiply in, for at least one month. We hope this will break their lifecycle. When we transplant the young brassicas, we cover those all with netting or rowcover for a few weeks.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for July: Unusual Hot Weather Cooking Greens (More in August)

All the following are warm weather crops, so wait till the soil temperature is at least 60°F (16°C) before direct sowing. If sown after mid-June, they can follow an earlier crop such as lettuce or peas.

Leaf amaranth, Amaranthus species.

Amaranths are found across the globe. There are two basic types: seed amaranths, used as a grain, and leaf amaranths. Callaloo is another name for leaf amaranth (but sometimes other crops have this name), widely used in the Caribbean. Amaranth leaves make tender and nutritious cooked greens.

This tropical annual plant thrives in really hot weather. It is a huge plant, 4’-6’ (1.2-1.8 m) tall. Some are very attractive, looking like coleus.

Carol Deppe in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening recommends All Red for a spectacularly colorful leaf, especially for salads, and Green Calaloo and Burgundy for fast-growing greens. She reports they all taste the same to her raw, and all taste the same when cooked. So choose based on your preferred color and rate of growth.

Joseph’s Coat, Amaranthus tricolor, is an eye-catching plant with red, green, and yellow leaves that may also include patches of pink, bronze, purple and brown.

William Woys Weaver (Heirloom Warm Weather Salad Greens, Mother Earth News) is a fan of ‘Bliton’ or ‘Horsetooth Amaranth’, Amaranthus lividus (Amaranthus viridis). He reports that it is the easiest and most prolific of summer greens.

In colder regions, start seed indoors, and transplant when it’s warm enough to plant beans or corn (Frequent advice for many of these hot weather greens). In warmer regions, direct sow in rows after all danger of frost is past, or broadcast with the aim of getting plants 4” (10 cm) apart. Succession-sowing in summer to provide continuous harvests.

Thin the seedlings to at least 6” (15 cm) apart (use for salads) and each time the plants reach 8-12” (20 -30 cm), harvest the top 8” (20 cm) for cooking. This pinching back will encourage bushier plants with new leaves and prevent reseeding. If grown for a single harvest, pull plants about 12” (30 cm) tall.

The crop is ready 50 days after sowing. It is tasty steamed or stir-fried like spinach. The tender leaves have a sweet nutty flavor.

When the plant is older, the stems get too tough, and then only the leaves and new shoots should be used. Some people say that amaranth should not be eaten raw, but I have failed to discover why, and others recommend it as salad.

In parts of the South, it has become a weed – “Grow responsibly,” as Barbara Pleasant says in her Mother Earth News blogpost Warm Weather Spinach Alternatives. If your farm has lots of amaranth weeds, you won’t want to risk adding another.

Red-root pigweed is an amaranth. If you have this weed and its striped flea-beetle, you will also find your edible crop full of holes and not saleable. For this reason, we don’t grow amaranth crops.

Aztec Spinach, Huauzontle, (Chenopodium berlandieri).

The chenopods (goosefoot family) are now considered a subfamily of the Amaranth family, which is related to true spinach. This plant has bigger leaves, more tender stems and better resistance to bolting than common lambsquarters, which is also edible.

Broadcast and thin to 4” apart, harvesting young leaves for salad just 30 days after sowing. When 12” tall, harvest the top 8”. This could be less than 8 weeks from sowing, depending on your climate. After the first harvest, thin the plants to 12”-15” (30-38 cm) apart, and the bushy new growth will provide leaves for future harvests. Each plant can produce a pound (0.5 kg) of colorful leaves, which steam in just one minute, and keep their color when cooked. Later, the plants with flowerbuds are cooked for breakfast. Wrap the stems with buds around a soft white cheese, dip the whole thing in batter and then fry the fritters, and simmer in a chili sauce. This may be more a springtime dish than a summer one, depending when the plants start to flower.

Hot weather increases productivity, while cooler fall weather increases the color intensity of the leaves. Succession-sowing in summer may be the solution to providing a later crop.

There is also a red version – the lower leaves turn bright red as they mature, and stay red when cooked. An attractive red and green plant, this crop can make a dramatic statement in the vegetable garden. Aztecs grew it between rows of corn. It can grow to 8’-12’ (2.4-3.7 m) tall, although it is a skinny plant, not bulky.

Magenta Magic orach.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Orach (Atriplex hortensis) is another member of the Chenopod family, and comes in several attractive green, red and purple color schemes. It is also salt-tolerant. It can be tricky to transplant, needing plenty of water. The plants produce small leaves, and set seed liberally, although it is not usually invasive. Thin to 6” (15 cm) apart. Orach has a star role as elegant baby salad leaves, but it can also be grown to full size and eaten steamed. The flavor is good, and the color is retained after cooking.

Good King Henry, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, aka Mercury or Lincolnshire Spinach, has thick long-stemmed, arrow-shaped leaves. It is rich in vitamins A & C, and calcium This hardy perennial is a fairly untamed plant that bolts easily, vigorously self-seeding. So don’t expect a long picking season. Early in the year the emerging shoots may be picked and eaten like asparagus.

Magenta Lamb’s Quarters, Chenopodium album, has beautiful colorful leaves.  It has a mild flavor raw or cooked. This is basically a giant weed, which grows to 6’ (1.8 m) and re-seeds readily, so keep it from seeding if you don’t want an invasion.

Strawberry Spinach/Beetberry Greens, Chenopodium capitatum is an ancient plant from Europe. It is similar to lambsquarters in habit, but only 18” (45 cm) tall. The triangular, toothed leaves are thinner than spinach, very nutritious, and high in vitamins. This plant is also grown for the small, mildly sweet, strawberry-like fruits at each leaf axil. It can re-seed vigorously and become invasive.

Edible Celosia, Celosia argentea comes from tropical Africa, where the fresh young leaves are used in a dish of various vegetable greens, combined with onion, hot peppers, eggplant, vegetable oil, and fish or meat. Peanut butter may be added as a thickener. The ingredients are boiled together into a tasty and nutritious soup. Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange reports that in their trial in Virginia it didn’t suffer from a single pest attack.

Next month I’ll tell you about some more hot weather greens.

Cooking Greens in June: Chard is the queen!

Young Fordhook Giant chard plants in mid-May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens in June

Summer has arrived here in central Virginia, and most of the spring-planted cooking greens have bolted and been cleared to make way for warm weather crops. And it’s already time to start work on the fall greens, sowing most of them this month. We have no cooking greens to transplant this month (it’s going to be too hot!).

See the chapter Other Greens: Chard and Other Summer Cooking Greens in Sustainable Market Farming for more about chard relatives and amaranths.

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in June

Winstrip tray with chard seeds.
Photo Pam Dawling

Chard is our queen of summer cooking greens! Because it is a biennial it will not bolt in the summer heat. We can eat it whenever we get the urge, until winter. Apart from the flavor, this is why I value chard: it is always there, always harvestable, from late May to late December. It’s so easy to care for, and nothing bad happens if we ignore it. Some years it even survives our winters. This year we have planted two beds instead of our usual one. We have Bright Lights multicolored chard and Fordhook Giant green chard. We also planted some Lucullus this year, to try. Some years we grow Perpetual Spinach/Leaf Beet, a chard with thin green stems and more moderate-sized leaves. This crop is the closest hot-weather alternative to actual spinach that I have found.

Bright Lights chard in our garden in July. Behind the chard is a new bed of beans with sunflowers and a bed in buckwheat cover crop.
Photo Pam Dawling

In addition to chard, we are harvesting beet greens as we pull our biggest spring-sown beets. By the end of June we will have harvested all the beets, putting the excess into cool storage over the summer. And so the beet greens harvest will end then too. Some years, the quality of the beet greens does not hold up as late as the end of June. We’ll see.

We continue to have broccoli until the end of June or early July, when we expect it to get bitter, and to only have tiny side-shoots left. We have started harvesting our early cabbage. This year we grew Early Jersey Wakefield, a pointed 2-3 pound (1-1.5 kg) OP cabbage that matures in 63 days. We sowed this in our greenhouse in late January and transplanted it around March 10.

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

Later we will harvest Farao (F1, 60d, 3lbs, 1.5 kg), more Early Jersey Wakefield, and flat, mid-sized, Tendersweet (F1 71d) from our April 1 transplanting. We store cabbage beyond our immediate needs in net bags in the refrigerator. None of these spring varieties are long-storers, but they should see us through the summer until mid-October when we have fresh outdoor fall cooking greens.

We do still have two beds of collards, Georgia Green and Lottie’s, which we bare-root transplanted from our hoophouse in mid-March. We also have two beds of kale, but these are past their prime and due to be clear-cut any day. June 5 is our usual end-date for kale.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in June

Sow the fall brassicas – see the Special Topic below for all the details.

Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli is ready for harvest in early spring but needs sowing in late May or early June.
Photo Baker Creek Seeds

Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli, is one of the broccoli staples in the UK, and is hardy down to 10°F (–12°C). I’m not sure it would survive in our winter-hardiness zone 7 climate, but one of these years I want to try it, as it’s a wonderful crop.

Early Purple Sprouting broccoli has an extremely long growing season, needing 220-250 days to reach maturity. It is grown overwinter for late winter/early spring harvest. Late spring/early summer is about the right time to be sowing it. If you decide to try it, know what to expect. These are big tall plants, and they produce florets, not big heads.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks

Maybe bushhog the spring broccoli (after harvest is finished) to reduce the habitat for harlequin bugs, our worst brassica pest. The cabbage will continue to grow and mature until mid-July, so we cannot disk up the plot until it is all harvested. We often sow a short-term cover crop such as buckwheat after clearing our spring brassicas.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for June:  fall brassica sowing, field planning and preparation

Fall brassica seedlings under netting on July 4.
Photo Pam Dawling

In May, I described our planning for our fall brassica nursery seedbeds. In the third week of June we start the weekly sowings, hooping, netting, watering and weeding. We sow around a foot (15 cm) of seed row for every 12′-15′ (4-5 m) of crop row, aiming for 3-4 seeds per inch (2.5 cm). When I’ve been responsible for this job, I set aside an afternoon a week on a regular day. It takes a surprisingly long time to get all the details right. It is important to be timely, because a one-day delay in sowings for fall can lead to a one week (or longer) delay in harvest date. The shortening daylight slows down the growth.

In Week 1, we sow the fall cabbages – this year Tendersweet F1 71d; Tribute F1 83-103d, 10-12lbs (4.5-5.5 kg); Ruby Perfection F1 85d, 4-7lbs (2-3 kg);  and Storage #4 F1 80-90d, 4-8lbs (2-3.5 kg). In Week 2, we repeat the cabbage sowings and sow the first broccoli. Weeks 3-6 fall in July, so I’ll tell you more next month. Weeks 7 and 8 are in August. See the schedule in May’s Cooking Greens post.

In summer weather, brassicas are the right size for transplanting (5 true leaves) in just three weeks, so we need to have the field ready for July 14. We disk in the winter cover crops, and if we didn’t have enough legumes in the mix, we spread compost. Or we spread some anyway, for the micro-organisms more than the plant nutrients. Then a week later, when the cover crops have started to break down, we disk again. Then we measure and flag the rows, and out up stakes and ropes to mark the rows. This helps us get the plants in a straight line (better for quick efficient cultivation), plus the ropes can support the netting we need to use for the first 4 weeks to keep the bugs off.

Next we make a fall brassica transplanting map, or field map, to show where we intend the various varieties to grow. We plan to have the broccoli varieties planted out in order of days to maturity, to make harvesting easy. We make the maps to scale so that if we switch variety in the middle of the row, we can show where the transition happens. Here I have chopped off some row length (extra bare space) at the right, so you can read the text.

Our map for 2016 shows rows of 265′, except for cabbage in rows 3 and 4. This is because the garden edge curved round and there was less space for those rows.

Book Review: The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, Andrew Mefferd,

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, 

Andrew Mefferd, New Society Publishers, January 2019, $29.99

Organic No-Till has been an unachievable goal for many of us, but there’s no need to feel guilty or ashamed! We may understand the biology, and even the physics and chemistry of it, and why it’s a Good Thing. We can see how it can be done on a domestic scale, especially by those who can grow or buy lots of mulch, and especially if there’s no need to account for time and money invested.  There is equipment (roller-crimpers and no-till planters) that makes large scale organic no-till possible and efficient. But for those of us growing food in the middle scale, it’s proving harder. Giant equipment works for acres of soybeans but not for market farming. How to keep the weeds away while tending forty sowings of lettuce? The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution provides very practical information for those who want to increase the amount of no-till growing on their small-scale farm.

Andrew Mefferd says in the introduction, “No-till is as much about climate change as it is about soil health as it is about farm profitability.” Work on all three at once with this book. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farm soils is off-gassed due to tillage (according to a Yale study). This decreases soil fertility at a time when we need to grow more resilient crops to cope with climate change. Global food production could be reduced by up to 17% by 2100 due to climate-induced crop failures. All steps in a good direction are worth taking.

Andrew is not a proselytizer and this is not a religion. You don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere to benefit from some very practical new skills, enabling you to increase the area in no-till practices. Different strategies work for different farms and different crops. Not inverting the soil layers is important. Any reduction in tillage is a good step; shallower is better than deeper; less often is better than after every crop. The tilther and power harrow on a shallow setting are used by some no-till farmers. One last tilling before setting up permanent beds is OK if that’s what you need to do! Think in terms of doing more no-till and take away any pressure to feel bad if you continue to do some tilling. One step at a time towards healing the earth, the climate; improving your soil and your crops.

The first part of the book explains the concepts and presents various methods: mulch grown in place; applied cardboard, deep straw or compost; occultation (tarping) and solarization (clear plastic). The main section consists of in-depth interviews with seventeen farmers about what works for them. After reading the first part, you can dive into the chapters with the methods that most appeal to you. The book is written so it doesn’t have to be read sequentially to make sense.

Andrew worked at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm on organic no-till vegetable production, using roller-crimpers and no-till drills. The next year he moved to a 3 acre farm and temporarily forgot about no-till because the methods he’d seen were not applicable to that scale. Ten years later, in 2016, he read articles in Growing for Market magazine, and attended conference workshops by farmers who were succeeding with organic no-till on smaller farms. These growers were using various different methods, and Andrew decided to visit them and write up the interviews.

“Want to build organic matter and soil biology because of the way you grow, instead of despite it?” Andrew asks. Increasing the organic matter in the soil will help the soil hold more water, suffer less from run-off and need less applied water per year (1″ (2.5 cm) of water saved per 1% increase in OM has been quoted). Carbon is stored in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Paying attention to the soil biology and feeding the soil is the heart of organic farming. We must farm more ecologically if we want to survive. At the same time, small-scale farms must be profitable to sustain the farmers. This book has many examples of farmers that started small with limited resources, and are able to make a decent living. Avoiding the need to buy heavy machinery is a big saving.

I love this surprise quote: “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Which outspoken radical farming group made this proclamation? The USDA-NRCS! Taking care of the soil biology reduces the urge to compensate with chemistry. The less tillage, the better-off we can be. OM levels can rise quickly when tillage is reduced. Cover-cropping, adding compost and organic mulches are all ways to achieve this. The churning of tillage burns up OM. As Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm, Connecticut, says, “Tillage is a nutrient flush from all the death you just wrought on the soil…Tillage doesn’t give nutrient balance, it gives you nutrient release.” More OM must be added every year just to maintain levels that were there before tilling.

Tarping is a rediscovered method that lets the soil digest the plant material without any tilling. This is especially useful when you have several weeks to spare after a harvest, but not enough time to grow a cover crop. The soil biology breaks down the residue, weed seeds germinate then die. The soil is left ready to replant.

After listing all the many benefits of no-till, Andrew explains the disadvantages. Weed control without cultivation is the main issue, especially perennial weeds. The slowness of mulched soil to warm in the spring is another. A third is that high OM can lead to more slugs. If you mulch with tree leaves, you might find squirrels and chipmunks rummaging for acorns. Grass creeps in from the edges. These problems are all addressed in the book.

Andrew Mefferd
Photo by Ann Mefferd

The Overview of Organic No-Till Techniques is a summary of methods, biodegradable mulches and plastic sheet materials.

Biodegradable mulch grown in place is the method we used for many years for our large planting of paste tomatoes. We sowed winter rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas in early September, following our spring broccoli and cabbage. At the beginning of May we mowed down the cover crop with our hay cutting machine and the next day dug holes and transplanted the tomatoes. We used a small shovel for our big transplants. Shawn Jadrnicek suggests using a stand-up bulb planter. The legumes provided all the nitrogen the crop needed, and the long-cut cover crop kept the weeds at bay for maybe 6 weeks. By then we had trellised the tomatoes and were able to unroll big round bales of spoiled hay between the rows. This dealt with the weeds for the rest of the season. One year in ten in our row crops rotation was no-till. We tried a few other applications of this method but generally they didn’t work as well. We were unable to direct-seed into cut mulch, for instance. Our watermelons didn’t like the cold soil, and we wanted watermelons in August, not October! To grow big enough cover crops for this to work, the food crop has to be planted no earlier than late April in central Virginia. Paste tomatoes worked well because we didn’t need an early harvest. Transplanted Halloween pumpkins and winter squash work. Fall cabbage and broccoli (on German millet and soybeans) can also work.

Bringing in biodegradable mulch (hay, straw, cardboard, paper, compost, tree leaves, wood chips, spent brewers’ grains) is the second method. The material needs to be spread thickly, usually 3″ (7.5 cm) or more and used appropriately (don’t switch plans and till in raw wood chips!). Straw can cost $750 per acre covered. A round bale covers about 200′ by 5′. We use hay bales or biodegradable plastic on annual crops, cardboard and wood chips around our fruit plantings. The existing weeds and crop residues will need to be removed first. Flaming works for small weeds, otherwise use one of the sheeting methods. Read the book to get the all-important details on how to be successful.

The non-biodegradable mulch methods are tarping (occultation) and solarizing. Tarping was introduced to most of us by Jean-Martin Fortier in The Market Gardener. For annual no-till crops, first tarp the soil using an opaque material such as silage tarps (or solarize in hot weather). After killing the weeds, uncover, spread mulch and transplant into it. Tarps will not kill docks or nut-sedge. Tarping takes from 3-6 weeks, (the shorter time in hotter weather). Allow longer if you’re bringing new land into production. Plan ahead, and tarp all winter. Silage tarps warm the soil for early spring plantings, and also prevent soil moisture from evaporating.

Solarization uses clear plastic (old hoophouse plastic is ideal). In a summer hoophouse, solarization can be as quick as 24 hours, Andrew says. When we’ve done this, one of our goals was to kill nematodes and fungal diseases, not just weeds, so we waited a few weeks. Outdoors it takes several weeks. You can see when the weeds are dead. Bryan O’Hara poked a thermometer probe through solarization plastic and found a 50F degree (28C) difference between the outside air and the soil immediately under the plastic; a 10F (6C) difference at 1″ (2.5 cm) deep and little temperature gain lower than that. Solarization does not kill all the soil life!

The growers interviewed explain which methods they use and why, helping readers weigh the pros and cons for the various crops we are growing, and our resources, climate and soils. Andrew offers some pointers on which methods are likely to work best for which situations. Several farmers tell how they transitioned into organic no-till for various crops, for instance buckwheat, compost and Weed Guard Plus paper mulch for a garlic crop, followed by two crops of lettuce. Mossy Willow Farm in Australia has a designated area for direct-seeded crops, where they use sprinklers, and the tilther if needed. The rest of their farm (transplanted) uses drip irrigation, but the soil does get too clumpy for direct seeding, and is slower to improve.

Farmers also address the things that went wrong while they were learning (thin stands of cover crops, cover crops not dying, getting the timing wrong on seeding or roll-crimping, weed seeds blowing in from elsewhere). They describe equipment they found helpful (drop-spreaders to lay down even layers of woodchips or compost, landscape fabric, the stand-up bulb planter, Tilther, Jang seeder, paperpot transplanter, broadfork). They also address timing of cover crop sowing to avoid warm-season and cool-season weeds; extending the weed suppression period of cut or crimped cover crops by adding tree leaves; pre-irrigating before digging transplant holes; and many other tips to success. A strategy for tall crabgrass is to mow it down, cover with newspaper and compost. A border of comfrey plants all-round the garden does a great job of keeping grass out. You can quickly see how this book will pay for itself many times over!

No-till beds are ready for early spring crops, even in wet regions, if the beds are mulched overwinter. Because no-till builds soil upwards, it is a good technique for land that is very rocky or with shallow topsoil. Another advantage of no-till is that you can install fairly permanent irrigation (drip or sprinklers). And you can farm intensively on small areas without needing to cater to the turning radius of large machinery. Getting high productivity from small areas is becoming an essential factor to consider.

Potatoes are a soil disruptor, and can bring up new weed seeds, so it’s worth covering the beds as soon as the potatoes are harvested. At Four Winds Farm in New York State, they plant garlic in the fall after potatoes, then mulch over the top of the garlic with a thick layer of compost. In their bigger plan, they only plant garlic in every other bed (although composting all). The following spring they plant winter squash in the empty beds, which can take over all the space after the garlic is harvested.

As I read the interviews, I started to worry: were none of these farmers having a problem using such high amounts of compost? The first problem is making or buying the sorts of quantities they are using, but the second is a build-up of phosphorus, which we have experienced on our farm. Singing Frogs Farm has studied this, testing the water run-off in the ponds at the low-point of their land. The phosphorus stays in place in their system, it does not leach. Nor does the nitrogen. The soil biology sponges up the nutrients, the 3-8 crops they grow in a year absorb them. They don’t rely on compost for fertility, but now   use pelleted feather meal, calcium and rock dusts. Their compost use is 0.5″ (< 1 cm) per year, very different from the many farmers using much more.

Daniel Mays at Frith Farm in Maine believes cover crops provide a more active kind of organic matter, which is tailored to the soil. He is seeing better results than with compost. Roots in the Ground! Hedda Brorstrom, of Full Blossom Flower Farm, Sebastopol, CA is trending in the other direction. She points out that a lot of the compost for sale is made with lots of animal manures, which does send the phosphorus levels way up. Because growing cover crops was not working for her, she researched available composts carefully. High-carbon compost is a way to avoid sending the phosphorus levels up too much. She has used 4-8″ (10-20 cm) of compost per year.

Neversink Farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains point to intensive production (“the greenhouse mentality writ large”), 5 people working on 1.5 acres of permanent (not-raised) beds, and direct sales to customers, as factors in their success. As Conor Crickmore says proudly, “Our farming practices may be radical but they have resulted in our farm being one of the highest production farms per square foot in the country.” Close to $400,000 gross on 1.5 acres!

The collected wisdom and experience in The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution can save newer no-till farmers from a lot of frustration and wasted time, money and mental and emotional energy.

Winter Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2019

Baby greens in a cold frame in January.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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).  We had some extremely cold temperatures of -8°F and -9°F (-22°C and -23°C) in early January 2018. The winter of 2018-2019 was not as brutal. Our lowest temperatures were 6°F (-14°C) 1/31/19, 8°F (-13°C) 12/11/18 and a couple of 11°F (-12°C). This year I found that senposai is  more cold-tolerant than I had thought. otherwise I haven’t got much new news here. My results from other years hold up.

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. Your own experience with your soils, microclimates and rain levels may lead you to use different temperatures in your crop planning.

Hoophouse Notes

Our double-plastic hoophouse keeps night time temperatures about 8F (4.5C) degrees warmer than outdoors, sometimes 10F (5.5C) 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);

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

In the hoophouse (8F warmer than outside) plants without extra rowcover can survive 14F colder than they could survive outside; with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan) at least 21F 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 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 bibb, Oscarde, Outredgeous, Pirat, Red Cross bibb, Red Sails, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Rouge d’Hiver, Salad Bowl, Sylvesta bibb, Tango, Winter Marvel, Winter Wonderland.

Hoophouse lettuce Red Tinged Winter and Tango (and senposai) in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoor killing temperatures of crops (unprotected unless stated)

35°F (2°C):  Basil.

32°F (0°C):  Bush beans, 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, chicory roots for chicons, and hearts, Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), dill (Fernleaf), endive (Escarole more frost-hardy than Frisée), 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.

22°F (-6°C): Some arugula (some varieties are hardier), Bright Lights chard, large leaves of lettuce (protected hearts and small plants will survive colder temperatures), rhubarb stems and leaves.

20°F (-7°C): Some beets (Bulls Blood, Chioggia,), broccoli heads (maybe OK to 15°F (-9.5°C)), Brussels sprouts, some cabbages (the insides may still be good even if the outer leaves are damaged), celeriac, celtuce (stem lettuce), some head lettuce, some mustards/Asian greens (Tendergreen, Tyfon Holland greens), flat leaf parsley, 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).

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

15°F (-9.5°C): Some beets (Albina Verduna, Lutz Winterkeeper), beet leaves, some broccoli, some cabbage (Kaitlin, Tribute), covered celery (Ventura), red chard, cilantro, endive, 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) if not covered, broad leaf sorrel, most covered turnips, winter cress.

12°F (-11°C): Some beets (Cylindra,), some broccoli, 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, most fall or summer varieties of leeks (Lincoln, King Richard), large tops of potato onions, covered rutabagas, some turnips (Purple Top).

Using a sturdy digging fork to harvest leeks in December.
Photo Pam Dawling

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 10F), Belle Isle upland cress, some endive (Perfect, President), young Bronze fennel, probably Komatsuna, some leeks (American Flag, Jaune du Poiteau), some covered lettuce (Pirat, Red Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl, Sylvesta, Winter Marvel), 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.
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 savoyed spinach and broad leaf sorrel. Many of the Even’ Star Ice Bred greens varieties 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), 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, 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 slightly colder

Vates kale with a freeze-killed center January 19 2018. Photo Pam Dawling

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

Many of our Vates kale plants survived those cold temperatures Photo Pam Dawling

-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).

A hardy cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

What can you do if spring is too wet?

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

As growers, we do not have control over everything that happens. The main thing outside of our control is the weather, and it’s only going to get more chaotic as climate change bites. Heavy rain events can leave soil impossible to work, because the water can’t drain away fast enough. What can we do when it’s too wet?

Laura Lengnick in Resilient Agriculture views climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as exposure, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). As for adaptive capacity, the main feature is our personal capacity to respond and plan. We need to pay greater attention to the climate as a critical factor in our decision-making.

Be Prepared

  • See Weatherspark.com for easy-to-understand graphics showing the average weather in your locality. Figure out which crops are most marginal already in your climate, and decide whether they are worth keeping in your crop portfolio, and whether they are important enough to be worth providing more protection for.
  • Using raised beds can help excess water to drain sooner.
  • Raised beds will drain and be ready to plant sooner after rain.
    Photo Ezra Freeman
  • Increasing the organic matter content of the soil helps it absorb more water in a manageable way, without compacting and going anaerobic. Compost improves the soil structure, organic matter and humus. The effects last longer than cover crops and crop residues, especially in humid conditions where the breakdown of plant material is very rapid.
  • Maximize the volume of living roots (food crops and cover crops) throughout the soil profile (use both deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops).
  • Cover crops. The root channels improve the soil structure — fine roots make up 70% of the root biomass of crimson clover, vetches, and field peas, and when the cover crops are mowed, these roots support microbial growth, form active organic matter, and rapidly release N to the plants. Keeping roots in the soil all the time, or as much of the time as possible, will help prevent erosion.
  • Consider no-till cover crops which become mulch.

    A no-till cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover.
    Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Avoid “bare fallow” at times of year when you could get a lot of rain. That might mean not just hurricane season, but year-round. Low-growing non-invasive cover crops can be planted in pathways.
  • Minimize tillage because tilling accelerates nutrient burn-up and hence the loss of organic matter. Avoid tilling or disking right before a forecast of heavy rain.
  • If water drainage is a big issue where you are, you may need to consider a “grassed waterway” Your NRCS office can help with the design. See their publication Grassed Waterway and Vegetated Filter System, Conservation Practice Job Sheet 412. This is really a very large gradual swale with a grassed surface, which you can mow (think home-grown mulch!).
  • Another option is a “drywell” or French drain, a big hole full of rock. We calculated that for our hoophouse, ours would need to be 11′ × 11′ (3.4 × 3.4 m) and 4′ (1.2 m) deep. It would have been a big area and a lot of rock (and money), and not inconsiderable maintenance to keep it free of sediment and leaves.
  • Field tile drainage
  • Keyline plowing (along contours).
  • Swales (also called “infiltration trenches”) allow water to gradually seep into the soil, while sending sudden large volumes downhill to an area which can absorb more water. A swale 18″ (45 cm) wide by 8″ (20 cm) deep in averagely draining soil can infiltrate approximately 1.6″ (4 cm) rain per hour per 20 ft2 (1.86 m2) of contributing area.

    A caterpillar tunnel and a plastic mulched bed at Potomac vegetable Farms in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • Physically cover the soil: hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels can help keep crops from deluges. Large structures do have the issue of runoff, but you can plan ahead for that and make a drainage system. When we built our hoophouse, we made a ditch around three sides of it, to channel runoff downhill. Some people who have roll-up or drop-down sidewalls install plastic guttering on the “hipwall” lumber that these structures need, and collect the rainwater for irrigation. Bear in mind that the water catchment barrel will be low down and the water will need pumping or dipping and hauling to be useful. Read the NRCS Code 558 Roof Runoff Structure.
  • Before the storm moves in, cover the soil where you plan to plant: temporary caterpillar tunnels (field houses), low tunnels, plastic mulches and tarping (occultation) can keep some of the soil dry, at the expense of causing runoff that makes other areas wetter. This can help get crucial plantings done in a timely way, leaving the wider problem to resolve later.
Fast-growing Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

First Aid if you can’t plant when you want to

  • Consider transplanting instead of direct seeding. We did this one year with our winter squash, when the plot was hopelessly too wet. We were able to transplant the squash fairly young, and did not have a big harvest delay.
  • Consider a different, faster, variety that you can sow later and catch up. Some leaf lettuces only need 46 days (Salad Bowl, Bronze Arrowhead, Tom Thumb), while Romaines can take a lot longer (Crisp Mint, Winter Wonderland 70 days, Webb’s Wonderful 72 days). Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall.
  • Consider a different, faster, crop that you can sow or transplant later. Keep your crop rotation in mind, as well as the next crop you intended to plant in that spot. Here are some fast-growing crops:
    • Ready in 30–35 days are some Brassicas such as kale, arugula, radishes (both the fast small ones and the larger winter ones); many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai (40 days) tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts
    • One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size.
    • Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
    • Ready in 35–45 days are corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil.
    • Ready in 60 days are beets, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
  • The International Cooperators’ Guide Grafting Tomatoes for Production in the Hot-Wet Season recommends using eggplant rootstocks for tomatoes when flooding is expected.

First Aid if you can’t till

  • Could you mow? This will prevent weeds seeding, and prevent the cover crop or previous food crop from getting any bigger. It will be easier to till once that does become possible.
  • If you can’t get a mower across the beds, can you use a weed whip (string trimmer) or a manual weed whacker or a scythe? This will buy you some time.
  • Could you use a broadfork? This will open up the soil, allowing it to dry faster.
  • Could you lay tarps over the whole mess, and wait for the cover crop or weeds to die?
  • Could you use a flame weeder to kill the existing vegetation? Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.
Flaming (pre-emergent)
Photo Brittany Lewis

Dealing with Floods

  • If your soil floods, drain it promptly, or you may end up with drowned plants (insufficient air) and with a high salt level caused by evaporation. Dig shallow trenches to let the flood water flow away.
  • After the flood recedes, you could lose yield from loss of soluble nutrients. The soil may have become anaerobic, reducing available nitrogen. If you have a suitable source of nitrogen, apply some. You may also get a flush of weeds, competing with your slow-to-recover crop.
  • See How to Rehab Your Soil after a Flood on the Hobby Farms website for five steps to repairing the damage: Clean Up, Remove Water, Beware of Contamination, Level the Land, Rebuild the Soil with Cover Crops. See also the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Expert Tip: How to Handle Flooded Fields for information about food safety.
  • Consult your local Extension service before selling any produce that has been in standing water, as the water may have become contaminated. See the US Food and Drug Administration Guidance for Industry: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-Affected Food Crops for Human Consumption
  • There is more about dealing with floods  and disasters in general, in The Year-Round Hoophouse.