If you have a hoophouse, you may now be planning or planting crops for fall, winter and spring. If you don’t have a hoophouse, this is a good time of year to consider getting one. See Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse at the end of that post. There are grants available from NRCS, including reparation levels of funding from traditionally underserved groups of people. There are now companies that will construct your hoophouse for you, if you don’t want to do it yourself, or can’t. If you do want to build your own, there are detailed instructions in my book The Year-Round Hoophouse. You can buy the book here on my Books page direct from me, or from my publisher New Society, or you can buy it wherever books are sold.
I have many posts about winter hoophouse vegetables, so rather than try to write something completely new on the topic, I am going to give you a guide to find your way around the information already here.
Book Review: Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts: 50 Easy-to-Grow Plants for the Organic Home Garden or Landscape, by Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano. Chelsea Green, March 2022, 384 pages, 7” x 10”, 250 color photos, extensive resources, $34.95.
ADDENDUM 7/27/22: Since writing this review I have heard that some of the plants that are not invasive in New York’s Hudson Valley are invasive elsewhere, so if you have any doubt at all, please check with your local Extension Service.
This book is a delight for the landscaper, plantsperson, and fruit connoisseur. Here are profiles of 50 fruits and nuts, almost certainly including at least one or two you haven’t heard of. Che, akebia, medlar, schisandra. . . they are all resilient, low-maintenance cold-hardy plants for growing in temperate zones. And growing trees is, as Eric Toensmeier points out “one of the world’s highest-carbon forms of gardening and farming.”
The authors are the founders of the Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in New York’s Hudson Valley, a garden they created to provide inspiration for their work in visual arts. As the garden grew to 11 acres, their main passion evolved into growing and selling ornamental and edible plant collections with a focus on underutilized species, and sharing their gardens with the public through classes and open days.
Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts does not include apples, peaches, and other popular fruits that are actually a challenge to grow sustainably (although pears are included). This book assumes you will find basic cultivation advice from some other source, and instead focuses on specific details about each plant that you might not have seen anywhere else. The authors’ goal is to increase diversity for reasons of climate resilience and support for insect species.
The plant profiles include taste ratings, recommended cultivars, propagation methods, requirements for soil, sun, shade and fertilization, and notes on harvesting and eating; also a Growth Difficulty Rating alerting readers to the level of attention (low, lower and lowest!) that the plants will require once established. The crops in this book are disease-resistant and pest-resistant. Many of the plants have a photo page with bark, blossom, leaves and fruit at various stages of development. The fascinating plant descriptions and natural histories will keep you entranced on rainy days. I found myself wishing for a calendar of fruiting dates, to plan year-round fruit. Although not presented in that format, the information is in each Taste Profile and Uses section.
The first fruit is akebia, also known as chocolate vine. It is an attractive ornamental, and if you want fruit, you need two genetically different plants. Akebia is easy to grow and thrives on neglect. It could be invasive, although the authors have not found it so. The 3-5” (7.5-13cm) fruit look like purple sausages with a waxy bloom. When ripe, the fruits split open showing white pulp enclosing tiny black seeds. The taste is like coconut-flavored tapioca pudding.
The second plant is the familiar almond. If you have disease problems with peaches, plums or cherries, think twice. If you have room for a few large trees, consider growing a few Dunstan blight-resistant chestnuts, and helping the restoration of the great American chestnut. Or plant pecans, choosing varieties suited to your location. Wait up to ten years for nuts.
Walnuts (black and English, as well as hybrids like heartnuts butternuts, buartnuts) need a long-term plan. All walnut trees produce the compound juglone in all parts of the tree. This compound is allelopathic – it inhibits the growth of nearby plants, both edible and ornamental – so give them a space of their own. Hazelnuts grow more shrub-like if American, more of a small tree if European. Eastern filbert blight can be a problem with European hazelnuts, but not American ones.
The Korean Stone Pine or Chinese Pine Nut thrives on steep slopes and thin soils. The trees do grow tall, looking from a distance like American White Pines. Although self-fertile, they provide higher yields if two trees are planted. The cones take two years to mature, and are covered with a very sticky resin. Store them in bags until the scales separate. The seeds in their shells look like small pistachios.
Asian pears are easy to grow and the usual pear disease and pest problems (fire blight and codling moth) affect them less. Shipova is a hybrid of the European pear with the whitebeam mountain ash, propagated by grafts. The fruits are 1.5-2” (4-5 cm) and stay green for a long time before ripening to a blushing yellow. It can take ten years before any fruit is available. Usually the flavor is sweet, delicate and fragrant.
Quinces are tree fruits closely related to pears, and were more popular in the past. The Pilgrims brought quince seeds from northern Europe, and it was the only source of fruit pectin until the end of the nineteenth century. Watch out for fire blight and cedar apple rust. The fruit is hard and downy, and cannot be eaten raw. The easiest way to cook them is to bake them whole, when they become fragrant and delicious. The authors didn’t have this information, and instruct on peeling and de-seeding before cooking, which is slow work. Cooking whole and making jelly is another option. Older varieties of flowering quince also produce fruit, but in modern varieties that feature has been bred out and double-flowering has been bred in! A few of the fruiting varieties include Crimson and Gold, Jet Trail, Tanechka, and Toyo-Nishiki which all grow as shrubs, not trees.
Medlars are another ancient old world fruit, with not much modern-day interest. The fruits are not edible until “bletted” by a hard frost or by waiting beyond normal ripeness, when they get very close to rotting. The small trees have beautiful spring blossoms, and if you don’t harvest the fruit, they remain on the twigs during the winter, giving added interest then. They can also be eaten frozen during winter walks through the orchard.
American Persimmons really must ripen on the tree to be good eating. They don’t need a frost, but they do need to be soft, with a golden-orange to red-orange skin. Harvest the fallen ones each morning from late September until the end of November.
Beach plums grow wild on the east coast from North Carolina upwards, and while they are easy to grow, the quality of the small stony fruits varies. Nanking cherry is a short shrub producing small bright red (or white) cherries that can be used for pies. They fall from the bush when ripe, and need to be gathered and used soon, as they do not have a shelf life. The flowering shrub is very attractive.
There are some (relatively) hardy citrus, such as the trifoliate orange, a very thorny tree with small sour fruits, useful for marmalade and fruit sauces. The trees are very good for hedges and Flying Dragon makes a spectacular winter sight with snow on the twisted branches.
Jujubes are also known as Chinese dates or red dates. They are easy-care trees once established, ripening in mid-late fall if in full sun. If left to dry, the fruit gains a date-like texture. Two trees are required for cross-pollination, choosing varieties that have flowers opening at the same time of day. They can survive cold winters, provided the summer is long and hot.
Pawpaws have earned themselves several books of their own in recent years. Although tropical flavored, this fruit is adapted to temperate zones, and needs 400 chilling hours below freezing in order to flower. They are slow to reach fruiting age, but then are easy to maintain. The large oblong fruit contain several large seeds and a soft custard-like flesh. They can be eaten out of the skin with a spoon, or they can be frozen to eat later, like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws. Two different trees are needed together for cross-pollination. There are myths about which insects pollinate pawpaws, but the authors attest to seeing many species of flies and beetles at work in their pawpaw flowers.
Black raspberries are a delicious wild fruit you can cultivate, although they are susceptible to disease and can spread the plagues to red and gold raspberries. Blackberries can be managed by thinning the canes, providing a trellis, shortening the canes or settling for a semi-wild, semi-constrained patch. Boysenberries are the result of complex crossing of blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries. The trailing canes are hard to manage, and the thin-skinned berries are best used very soon after harvest, without any need to travel.
Mulberries grow on trees, not canes, ripening in late June or early July. Everbearing types produce a second flush of fruit, into August. If you have large harvests of these delicious fruits, spread a tarp or sheet under the tree and shake the ripe fruit loose. There are black mulberries for southern areas, as well as the cold-hardy white and red mulberries. The Illinois Everbearing cultivar produces plentiful large fruit on a shorter tree than the wild types. The structure of the tree is a bit fragile, so you may need props under the branches.
Che berries look like dogwood fruit, but are not related. They are a kind of mulberry, and they are also related to figs. Their flavor is like both. They are now classified as a type of Osage orange. Aronia berries (chokeberry), Cornelian cherries, and goumi berries are all small berries that grow on shrubs or small trees that can make an attractive addition to a landscape. Goumi is an Eleagnus, related to the invasive autumn olive. Because goumi is not invasive (and the berries are bigger), it makes a good alternative. Also, goumi roots capture nitrogen from the air in the soil, improving its nutritional profile, and making it possible to grow them in salty soils.
Juneberries are also known as Saskatoon, Serviceberry, Shadblow and Shadbush. There are 20-25 species in North America, one for almost every climate area. Poor soil is sufficient, but full sun is better than partial shade. There is no sourness to the flavor, and the authors suggest that the mild flavor is enhanced if you chew the seeds too. They do make good pies, but because birds are fond of them, you may need to snack as they do, or harvest under-ripe.
Blackcurrants were once widely prohibited in the US, blamed for killing pine trees by spreading white pine blister rust. In most places it is no longer illegal to grow blackcurrants, and there are some disease-resistant blackcurrant varieties. They don’t do well in hot places, but the flavor is worth pursuing. The authors report that over a 14-year period, their pine trees have not been affected by the neighboring blackcurrants. Gooseberries are another European fruit once under the same ban as blackcurrants. Not all the European varieties do well in the humid mid-Atlantic, although there are still a hundred that do! Invicta, Poorman and Jahn’s Prairie are recommended as successful sweet types.
Blueberries are native to North America, and do best in acid soils containing a specific beneficial mycorrhizal fungus around the roots to make soil nutrients absorbable. There are Northern Highbush, Southern Highbush, Rabbiteye and low bush types. See the book for recommended varieties. Huckleberries look like lowbush blueberries but have larger, crunchy seeds. Lingonberries, another blueberry relative, are Sweden’s national fruit and develop on low-growing spreading evergreen shrubs. They do best with acid soils, whether shady or sunny. In hot areas choose spots with afternoon shade. The plants make an attractive year-round ground cover, with the flowers and berries providing extra seasonal interest.
Seaberry (Sea buckthorn – but it’s not a buckthorn), produces shiny orange fruits in late summer, with high levels of several vitamins and many health benefits. The bushy plants have an aggressive growth pattern, and the thorns can be off-putting. But if you persist you can enjoy these tart berries cooked and sweetened.
Grapes are a well-known vine crop. Muscadines, the native American grapes, found in the Southeast and South central US, are not found in New York, and are therefore not in this book. Muscadines do better with high heat and humidity, being more resistant to fungal diseases. The fox grape, native in the northeastern US, lead to the development of the Concord variety. If growing grapes, cover each developing bunch soon after pollination with a paper bag stapled closed around the stem.
Arctic kiwis are related to the large fuzzy tropical ones, but are hardier, smaller – about 1” (2.5cm) long – and smooth. The large vines are easy to grow, but do need a strong trellis. Hardy kiwis or Chinese kiwis have vines that are much bigger – up to 100’ (30.5m) long, and can take years longer to start producing. Their fruits are a little bit bigger than Arctic kiwis, with a more complex flavor, and, again, no fuzz, so no need to peel. Unlike Arctic kiwis, they do not fall from the vine when ripe.
Here’s a rare one: Himalayan Chocolate Berry. This very ornamental member of the honeysuckle family naturalizes rapidly (invasive in warmer areas?). It feeds many birds, and provides small nibbles for passing humans. It will never be a commercial success, because the sporadic ripening reduces the size of any one harvest, and the berries tend to split once ripe. Honeyberry is another honeysuckle type that is edible (most honeysuckles are slightly poisonous.) Honeyberries are a very cold-hardy early-harvesting berry, a long-shaped, blue-purple fruit, ripe when no longer at all green inside. Aurora, Berry Blue and Borealis are recommended varieties. Birds love them.
Schisandra is another less-known vine, producing tangy red berries, hanging down in generous clusters. You will need to trellis this vigorous vine, and maybe search the foliage for the hidden fruit. Most people will want to sweeten the fruit or juice it with sweeter fruits. Schisandra is not invasive, and you will need to plant several to be sure of having at least one male and one female. Goji is a berry growing on a “vine disguised as a bush”.
Cranberries are well known, although not that many people construct a bog to grow their own. Instructions for creating a “bowl bog” are in this book. Elderberries are a relatively well-known fruit. Note that all green parts of the plant are toxic (I didn’t know). I am more familiar with European elderberries, which we happily eat raw, and juice. American elderberry is apparently slightly toxic, and to most tastes, not pleasant if eaten raw. This shrub is very tough and adaptable, and has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. York seems to be particularly sturdy. European varieties may grow for several years but then decline.
Spikenard is a native herbaceous perennial found in cool shaded woodlands, and growing to 5’ (1.5m) tall in a single season. The tiny berries are not poisonous as some sources claim, but if you are nervous, cook them. They look a little like elderberries.
Wintergreen is a distinctive flavor familiar from some American candy, toothpaste and chewing gum. The shade-loving vines hug the ground, thriving in acid soils. The scarlet berries ripen in fall, persist on the plants all winter, and actually become sweeter after some cold weather. They don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so harvest while they are good eating. There are some modern cultivars selected for larger berries, although this plant is mostly grown as a ground cover or used for winter wreaths. The leaves can be used as tea. Those allergic to aspirin should avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.
Mayapples are found in the understorey of Eastern woodlands, pushing up through the leaf-litter in early spring and unfurling large palmate leaves. All parts of the plant except ripe fruits are poisonous, and too many fruits can have a laxative effect. The roots have been used to relieve indigestion, and cancer drugs are derived from them. The fruits are lemon-shaped, up to 2” (5cm) long. Wait for them to soften and start to wrinkle in the summer. Discard the skin and seeds (slightly toxic). The pulp of the ripe fruits has a tropical flavor.
Maypops grow on the very ornamental passionflower vine. The egg-size fruits don’t provide a lot of food, but have an interesting mildly sweet, mildly acid flavor, once the fruits start to wrinkle. The seed are surrounded by tasty edible arils (like pomegranates).
After all the profiles, there are two pages of further reading, two of plant nurseries, about 20 pages of extra notes about the crops, and 20 pages of index. A very well-researched book!
Over the years I have developed definite preferences about some tomato varieties, and I also enjoy trialing a few new kinds each year. We do our experimenting in the hoophouse, where we can keep a closer eye on the plants, and keep the labels visible (few weeds!)
New this year have been Pink Boar, Geronimo, Cherry Bomb and Estiva. Two of those I want to grow again, and two can fade into history.
Pink Boar is a beautiful fruit, with olive green strips on a wine-red background, and dark red flash. The flavor is sweet, tangy, rich and juicy like Black Cherry and some of the other dark-fruited tomatoes. The plants are vigorous (some say “aggressive”) and productive, although I do notice a bit of a tendency to split. Not big messy splits like Black Prince, but manageable if you pay attention to harvesting them when ripe. It may be our “beginner problem” of not knowing their ripeness signs as well as the other varieties. I recently told one of our crew “close your eyes and press the bottom of the fruit.” If it’s at all soft, it’s ripe. I learned this years ago from a completely blind friend who grew a garden.
75-80 days to maturity, indeterminate OP, 2-4oz (56-112gm), 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) in diameter. They were bred by Brad Gates from Black Boar and Brown Boar, as part of their Wild Boar series. I hear they grow OK in Texas. You can buy the seed from High Mowing, Baker Creek, Peaceful Valley, and Wild Boar Farms, the breeder himself.
Cherry Bomb is a firm, bright red cherry tomato with a sweet, well-balanced flavor. The 64 day, F1 hybrid indeterminate plants produce good handfuls of ripe 15-20 gm fruits at each harvest. They are not prone to splitting (unlike Sun Gold).
Cherry Bomb has a high resistance to late blight. We have rarely suffered from late blight, but I like to grow a few resistant tomatoes just in case. And we have been looking for a tasty reliable red cherry. This might be it. Cherry Bomb is sold exclusively by Johnny’s Selected Seeds, who rate this variety for outdoors, not just hoophouses. It’s out of stock until August 2023, so it must be popular!
We love Sun Gold, Black Cherry and Five Star Grape, but have still been searching for another cherry. We weren’t wowed by Washington Cherry or Riesentraube (gave those up after one year). Initially, we were taken with Amy’s Apricot, but we lost patience with its variability. It’s tasty, and a nice one for those growing only a few plants, who like surprises. But we have enough confusion, and want more predictability.
We appreciate Mountain Magic more each year! We have been growing Glacier and Stupice as early hoophouse tomatoes for years, but the green shoulders are off-putting. Glacier is a 56-day OP determinate with potato-leaf foliage and good flavor. Stupice is a 55-60 day OP with potato-leaf foliage, but is indeterminate. From suppliers’ photos you wouldn’t know these two varieties get green (or yellow) shoulders, and the descriptions often don’t mention that either. Some particular varieties are more prone to green shoulders and there is also a weather component. When these varieties are in sustained high temperatures (hoophouses!), lycopene (red color) production is reduced, and when direct sun beams on the tops of the tomatoes, temperatures inside the fruits rise. Perhaps we’ve been pruning them too much.
Another factor is that at high temperatures, chlorophyll can’t break down, and the red color is hidden. The yellow color is carotene, and it is more heat-resistant than lycopene. We’re ready to wait a few days longer, and have fruit that are red all round.
Mountain Magic is a 70-75 day indeterminate red 2 oz (56gm) hybrid, from breeder Randy Gardner in NC. It is productive, beautiful (no cracks!), trouble-free (resistant to both early blight and late blight, as well as Verticillium and Fusarium wilts) and, importantly, delicious. It looks a bit like Amy’s Sugar Gem, but is more regular, and has a better flavor. This year we increased the number of Mountain Magic and cut back on the Stupice and Glacier. Next year we will probably grow a higher proportion of Mountain Magic again. And stop pruning the Stupice and Glacier we do grow!
Jubilee (also known as Golden Jubilee) is a lovely medium-sized orange 80 day indeterminate OP we have grown every year for a long time. Beautiful, meaty, delicious sweet fruit. Disease-resistant and crack-resistant. The seed has been harder to find since the start of the Covid pandemic. One year we even bought somebody’s home grown seed that arrived labeled “Probably Jubilee”. It was close enough under the circumstances. Reimer, Eden Brothers, Willhite, Victory, Sandia, Hoss Tools and Bentley have it currently.
For more Tomato Appreciation, see Craig LeHoullier’s Tomato Collection Tour. I linked to part 6: numbers 51-70, because Craig mentions Valencia, a selection of Sunray, which was selected from Jubilee (a stabilized cross by Burpee between Marglobe and Tangerine). In my search for a good reliable tasty orange tomato I have at some time tried almost all of these, without knowing their family connections.
Craig says his “Grow Every Year” category includes Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Green, Cherokee Chocolate, Polish, Lucky Cross. Others, such as Brandywine, Dester, Ferris Wheel, Yellow Brandywine, Anna Russian are grown in his garden every other year.
Our workhorse red slicer is Tropic, a heat-tolerant, disease-resistant 80-day indeterminate OP from the University of Florida program. Good sweet flavor, 8-9 oz (225-250 gm) fruit. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange selection is available from Wilcox. Other suppliers of Tropic include Urban Farmer and TomatoFest.
This is another post in my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.
Melons are the focus fruit for July
July is the month in our climate, to start harvesting muskmelons (often called cantaloupes), Asian melons, and canary melons. Next month I’ll talk about watermelons, which are slower to ripen.
Melons love warm, sunny days and need 80-100 days from seed sowing to harvest. For good production, melons warm weather, along with a steady supply of water. Melon plants also need good air circulation, so leaves and fruit can dry fairly quickly after dew or rainfall. To help prevent the spread of diseases, rotate crops and avoid growing them where other cucurbits were planted in the previous year or two.
Melons thrive in well-drained soil, sandy loam, or in clay soils that have been good levels of organic matter. Soil pH should be 6-6.5 for healthy melons and a good yields. Encourage drought-resilient crops by using drip irrigation, so that roots grow deep.
Types of melons
Fastest to produce a crop are the 65-day Asian melons such as Torpedo (replaced Sun Jewel), or Early Silver Line. These 1-2lb (0.5-1kg) oblong melons have refreshing crisp white flesh and are mildly sweet. Some people disparage them as “cucumber melons,” but their good points are earliness, tolerance of chilly weather, being easy to grow and having a pleasant flavor.
Muskmelon (Cucumis melo reticulatus, commonly, but inaccurately called cantaloupe) is the melon type I have most experience with. They have a yellowish-buff skin with a raised netting, and sometimes lengthwise sutures (ribbing). The flesh is orange with a complex sweet aromatic flavor, and the 3–7 lbs (1.5–3 kg) fruits take 75-84 days to mature. We have enjoyed Pike, Kansas, Delicious 51, Edisto 47 and Hales Best. My long-time favorite was Ambrosia from Seminis Seeds, but when Seminis was bought by Monsanto, I stopped growing it, as I don’t want to support Monsanto in producing GMOs. For Downy mildew resistance and tolerance to cucumber beetles, grow Trifecta from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
True cantaloupes, Cucumis melo cantalupensis, are rarer in the US. They are rough and warty rather than netted. Prescott Fond Blanc and Petit Gris de Rennes are true cantaloupes, as are charentais melons. Charentais melons are smaller, round, good-flavored orange-fleshed melons. I have successfully grown 78-day Savor, a 2lb (0.9kg) melon with a green-grey skin and deep orange flesh.
Canary melons are smooth yellow 4lb (1.8kg) fruits with white flesh and are quite sweet.75 days to maturity. We have had good success with Mayor.
Crenshaw melons are large oblong 78-day melons with light yellow skin and very aromatic pale creamy orange flesh.
Galia tropical melons have green flesh, yellow-tan skins and a round shape. Honeydew melons are fast-maturing, smooth skinned oval melons, usually with pale-green flesh, although Honey Orange is salmon-colored. 3lbs (1.4kg), 74 days.
We tried some smaller (individual serving) melons, Tasty Bites. personal-size melons (they top out at 3lbs/1.4kg) and Sugar Cube 2–2 1/2 lb (1kg). The advantage of having a smaller fruit was not more than the disadvantage of harvesting smaller fruits.
Sowing melon seeds
Melons are a bit finicky in their youth, but given a strong start, they can do very well. You can sow melon seeds directly in the garden, but the seeds need soil temperatures of 59°F (15°C) minimum to germinate, and their best temperature is 86°F (30°C). At that temperature they only take 3 days to emerge. More and earlier success comes with sowing melon seeds indoors, where the right temperatures can happen earlier in the year. Maximum germination temperature is 100°F (38°C).
Up to three weeks before your average last frost date, sow 2 or 3 melon seeds in potting compost at a depth of ½” (1cm) in 3” (7.6cm) pots or plug flats. We are in zone 7a, with an approximate last frost date of April 25 – we sow April 15 for May 6 transplanting (21 days after sowing). After germination, the temperature should be reduced to 75°F (24°C). We always ensure our melons get a spot in the greenhouse with very good light and no drafts.
Keep the soil moist and when seedlings have reached 2” (5cm) in height, snip off the weakest ones at soil level, leaving one strong seedling per pot or cell. When the first true leaves appear, lower the temperature to 65°F (18°C) and reduce watering a little.
Harden off the transplants for a week before you set them into the garden. Set them outside in a shady area on warm days, gradually increasing the time outside each day from one hour to two hours, to three, and so on. Alternatively, use shadecloth and increase the sun exposure by an hour a day. Reduce watering a bit, to slow plant growth. Check your local weather forecast to ensure that your melon plants will not be subjected to chilly, windy conditions when they are young.
Before starting transplanting, check the soil temperature: garden soil should be at least 70°F (21°C) for melon survival. Melon plants exposed to temperatures cooler than recommended might not set fruit later on. One way to speed up soil warming is to cover the area with black plastic mulch for 1-3 weeks prior. Cut an x-shaped slit where for each plant and hold the edges of the plastic down with rocks. We space our melons at 2’ (60cm) apart in the row, with rows 6’ (2m) apart.
Melons are admittedly delicate to transplant. When outdoor conditions, soil temperature, and timing are right for transplanting melons, take great care in handling the plants. To help reduce transplant shock, water the flat (or pots) well before transplanting and avoid disturbing the roots when transplanting into the garden. Plant the entire stem in the ground, leaving only the seed leaves upwards exposed. The stems are fragile, and will do better protected in the ground. Water the soil thoroughly. If you are not using black plastic, spread organic mulch (straw, spoiled hay or dry tree leaves) around the melon vines. You might rather hoe and wait until hot weather to spread organic mulch, as this will keep the soil cool, and as I stressed already, melons like heat. Depending on soil fertility, you may want to add fish emulsion to encourage growth.
If the weather is less warm than you hoped, use hoops and thick rowcover until you are more confidant in the temperatures, then switch to netting. We hoop and net our melons immediately after transplanting, to keep the bugs off. We keep the netting on until we see female flowers (they have miniature melons between the flower and the plant). Melons require pollination, so it is necessary to remove the netting.
Care of melon plants
If weeds emerge through the mulch, pull them slowly, while stepping next to the melon stem. Melon roots near the surface can easily be injured. As melons ripen, put a piece of cardboard under the fruit to help prevent rot. With the late summer planting, you can pinch off new flowers to steer the plant’s energy into fruit that has already set. Keep the soil around melons watered with 1-2” (2-5 cm) per week, up until the last week or two before harvest. Holding back on water during this time leads to sweeter melons.
Succession crops of melons
In our climate we can sow melons three times, a month apart. The first row is from transplants, set outside May 3-6. We direct sow the second bed on May 25, then June 25 and once, on July 15 for a “Last Chance” crop.
Pests and diseases of melons
Like most cucurbits, melons are vulnerable to striped cucumber beetles. These pests chew on plants and spread diseases, such as bacterial wilt and mosaic virus. Protect against cucumber beetles with rowcover or insect netting applied at transplanting, or hunt them every morning on leaves and inside flowers, when beetles are more slow-moving. Watch for aphids in the garden, as they can also spread viruses. You can usually hose off leaves or apply an insecticidal soap to kill aphids before they inflict too much damage. In warm, humid climates like ours, melons are subject to powdery mildew, which can wipe out a melon crop if not caught in time. Look for melon varieties that are disease resistant.
Sudden wilt is caused by cold weather in late summer when the plants are loaded with ripening melons.
I recommend harvesting daily, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases.
With muskmelons, when the background-color of the skin beneath the “netting” changes from gray-green to buff or a yellowish color, the melon is almost ripe. A honeydew melon will turn a light yellow-white color when it’s ripe.
For some varieties (but not all), if gentle pressure is applied to the base of the stem, and the stem separates from the vine, the melon is ready. This is called the “full slip” stage. (The half-slip stage requires a bigger nudge.) Crenshaw and Canary melons require a good tug (“forced slip”). Honeydew, Charentais, and Piel de Sapo must be cut from the vine – don’t wait for them to slip!
Storage time for melon depends on the type. Relative humidity should be 85-95% for best results. Muskmelons will last a couple weeks at 40°F (4°C); honeydew can be stored up to three weeks at 50°F (10°C). Store other melons at 45-50°F (7-10°C) for 7-14 days.
Other small fruits available in July
Blackberries, blueberries, crabapples, elderberries, gooseberries, goumi berries, mulberries, peaches, black and red raspberries.
Water all fruit crops. Pack away blueberry netting after fruiting. Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit.
In late June/early July (after fruiting): Renovate one-year-old strawberry beds to carry over for another year, by mowing or shearing/clipping the plants, weeding and mulching, but don’t compost them at this stage. Dismantle two-year-old strawberry beds after gathering any propagation material.
If preparing to plant new plug-strawberries, till an area in late June or very early July and sow buckwheat by July 4. After three weeks, till in the buckwheat and prepare the beds.
If preparing to plant bare-root strawberries, (perhaps rooted runners in the paths of older beds), till the area by the beginning of July and prepare new beds with compost, driptape, and landscape fabric.
In early July, or at least by mid-July, plant new bare-root strawberry transplants.
July 6-14: To propagate from your own plants, pot up pencil-thick crowns, with 2 or 3 leaves, 4” (10cm) petioles. Use Round-50 plug trays. Or use runner tips. Set up a shadecloth propagation tent in a cold frame, or other protected area Set up a misting system and timer. Also handwater once or twice a day, to keep the soil damp.
Book Review: Manage Weeds On Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies, by Charles Mohler, John Teasdale and Antonio DiTommaso. SARE Handbook 16, 2021, 416 pages, color photos, drawings, charts, $24.00
This immense book is a game-changer! A resource enabling us to understand weeds better and deal with them smartly, exploiting their weaknesses, making best use of natural and created resources.
About 300 pages comprise a directory of major agricultural weeds of the United States and Canada: about 20 grasses and sedges; about 45 types of broadleaf weeds. Many of the weeds in North America came from Europe, so the book’s usefulness is not restricted to this continent. The focus is on weeds of arable farmland. Gardens fit in this category, although the physical tools will be smaller! This part of the book is not merely to help you identify weeds, but to develop a management plan for each one.
The first part of the book is 120 pages of agricultural gold – an exploration of concepts of ecological weed management. Understanding the biology of weeds is vital to successful ecological management. (Note that I’m avoiding the use of the word control, as the authors do.) The book is “intended to provide the information you need to grow crops without synthetic herbicides, great expense or back-breaking work.” Good information is an efficient tool. Understanding more about how the biological world works will enrich your life!
This is not a book many of us will read cover to cover. It’s a toolbox. Read the first section, then seek out the profiles of your most problematic weeds and make a plan for each one. In each profile there is an identification section with good photos, a management section, a concise summary, referring back to cultural and mechanical strategies, and an ecology section with specific information leading to the recommendations in the management section.
Chapter 2, How to Think About Weeds, starts with the reminder that weeds die from various causes (any of which we can use to advantage). Seeds may fail to germinate, or get eaten. Seedlings die from drying out, disease, competition from other plants, or lack of light, or being eaten, mowed or turned under.
“The goal of ecological weed management is to arrive at a balance between birth and death that keeps the density of weed populations low most of the time and reduces them quickly when density starts to increase.”
You need to increase the death rate and reduce the germination rate of the weed seed bank, or else the population continues to increase. This demonstrates the value of understanding which tools to use in which situation. Keeping on hammering with a wrench will not work well!
Seed size is one of the characteristics of weeds that affect their successful management. Smaller seeds are easier to kill, because the seed does not provide much food for the seedling. Large-seeded crops and transplants can out-compete small-seeded weeds, if the timing of cultivation is right. There is a good explanation for why tillage prompts seed germination, which can give weeds the upper hand. Environmental cues such as soil temperature, the difference between night and day temperatures, oxygen levels, even a brief flash of light, can indicate if the seed is near the surface and whether there are competing plants up there. The cues can be very specific. Velvetleaf and tall morning-glory germinate in response to a sudden absence of certain volatile compounds which are vented from the soil during tillage. Understanding this Secret Life of Plants can help us figure strategies for specific weeds.
Different weeds germinate in different seasons, and crop rotation between spring, summer and fall crops will disrupt weed lifecycles and prevent any one taking over. Another consideration is that the same percentage of the seeds still in the soil will die each year. This means that if no fresh weed seed is added, the seed bank declines rapidly in the first few years, leaving some seed persisting for years.
The main cause of seed death is probably that seeds germinate in unfavorable conditions and then die. Secondly, seeds are eaten. Lastly, some seeds rot and decompose. Small seeds deep in the soil are unlikely to germinate. It takes a big seed to provide the resources to grow a shoot that can reach a long way to the surface. Galinsoga seeds rarely emerge from deeper than ¼” (6mm). Few seeds can germinate from deeper than 2” (5cm).
Nowadays we are learning about two photosynthetic pathways, C3 and C4. C3 plants thrive in cool, moist conditions, not needing full daylight to maximize their photosynthesis. Most cool-season grasses and broadleaf weeds use the C3 pathway. They can increase photosynthesis (grow more) as CO2 concentration in the atmosphere increases. C3 crops like potatoes, pumpkins and soybeans will probably do better against C4 weeds as CO2 concentration increases in the climate disaster. C4 plants perform best at high temperatures, with more sunlight enabling more photosynthesis. Bermuda grass, foxtails, pigweeds, and common purslane use the C4 pathway. But C4 crops such as corn will have a harder time with C3 weeds. If your climate becomes warmer and drier, C4 weeds and crops will be favored over C3 weeds and crops. This effect may be stronger than the effect of increased CO2.
Other factors influencing growth include frost tolerance, drought tolerance, and the presence or absence of mycorrhizal fungi. The majority of flowering plants do form mycorrhizal associations, but many weeds and some crops do not. Brassicas, chenopods (spinach, beets, lambsquarters, amaranths), smartweeds and sedges do not. Mycorrhizae assist the growth of host plants by providing nutrients and a good growing environment. When conditions favor mycorrhizae, those crops are more competitive against non-mycorrhizal weeds.
The diameter of the roots also has a role. Large-seeded crops tend to have large diameter roots, while small plants tend to have small diameter roots, which can grow longer faster. Pigweed (small seeds) after 28 days of growth has a root-length:weight ratio eight times higher than sunflower (large seeds). Pigweed roots are better at gathering nutrients, because they explore more of the soil, and can absorb more nutrients (because the ratio of surface-area:volume is greater).
Some weeds flower near the end of their lifecycle, after growing quite large, in a “big bang” (pigweed and lambsquarters). Removing these weeds early in life prevents the competition from these large plants that reduce the crop yield. If you miss that opportunity, killing the weed later in life (before it seeds) will help future crops. Other weeds are “dribblers” – they start to set seed while still small. They can hide among the crop plants, making seed whenever conditions are favorable. Failing to remove these weeds early in life will potentially reduce yields for many years. This is how galinsoga can be such a nuisance in vegetable farms, surviving where the soil is frequently cultivated, and sometimes neglected long enough for seeds to mature. It’s always worth hand-pulling a large galinsoga as you walk by, as the largest plants produce the most seeds.
All plant species have natural enemies (diseases and pests that have co-evolved to live in balance), plus the occasional alien plant enemy that could devastate the population. Consequently, there are few natural enemies of weeds other than imported ones. Bio-herbicides are rare. But there are less obvious natural enemies of weeds. The authors measured the mortality of lambsquarters and redroot pigweed in the absence of human intervention. 80% or more of the lambsquarters emerging after tillage died before maturity. Fungi and insects were the likely predators. Results with pigweed were similar.
There is a chart of edible weeds for those inclined to engage in direct weed eradication, and the chart includes cautions about toxic parts of each plant.
The chapter summary lists ten important lessons. Dealing with roots and rhizomes of perennial weeds; rotating between spring, summer and fall-planted crops; influencing when weed seeds germinate and when they die; using transplants; using slow release nutrients to feed your crops rather than the weeds; avoiding over-fertilization; preventing weeds from seeding; reducing arrival of new weeds on your farm.
Chapter 3 is about cultural weed management. Ecological weed management involves “many little hammers”, using multiple strategies together in a complementary way. Crop rotation is one that involves advance planning. Spring weeds can be destroyed while preparing the soil for summer planting, reducing future pressures in spring crops. Good stands of overwintering cover crops, especially mixtures, can inhibit winter and spring weed germination. The diversity of field operations associated with particular crops is as important as the diversity of the crops themselves.
Growing healthy competitive crops is a fundamental part of weed management, and involves many aspects, starting with using high vigor, fast-germinating seeds. Planting the crop at an appropriately dense spacing will reduce weed opportunities. Any crop that produces multiple harvests (kale, tomatoes, squash) can be planted closer than most recommendations without loss of yield, whereas those with a single harvest (cabbage, lettuce, corn, root crops) will get smaller if planted too close. Planting 50% closer is usually worth trying, for a higher total yield, when smaller individual units are acceptable. Thus may involve more time harvesting, and bigger seed purchases. The reduction of weeds may benefit many subsequent crops.
Other factors not yet mentioned include row spacing, row orientation (plants get more light in rows that run N-S), choice of fast-growing or large-leaved varieties (Danvers are better at shading than Nantes type carrots), planting date (avoid the period when the dominant weed species is likely to grow vigorously), intercropping (practice with caution, avoid having two crops in competition), nutrient and water supply.
No-till cover crops, where the residue remains on the soil surface, will inhibit many weeds, and provide many other ecological benefits. Organic no-till isn’t the answer for every situation. It keeps soil cool and somewhat compacted, and doesn’t release its nutrients quickly, so it isn’t good for early spring crops, or early warmth-loving crops. To sow the necessary good stand of cover crops, tilling is required. This means no-till can have a valuable place in your rotation, but continuous organic no-till is not likely to work.
Tarping is a method of covering the soil with large opaque tarps for several weeks, to germinate and then kill emerging weeds by depriving them of light. This provides a seedbed ready to plant. Tarping can also be used to kill mowed cover crops or crop residues. Tarping can be useful in the transition from tilled to no-till farming, while weeds are still a big challenge.
Solarization is another soil-covering practice, this time with clear plastic and the goal of heating the soil to kill weed seeds, pests and disease organisms in the top layer of soil. This method works in hot weather in areas with a good amount of sunlight. It works best when the plastic is laid tightly over well-prepared beds, providing good soil contact. The edges are buried to hold in the hot air. It takes several weeks to kill weed seeds, even when conditions are right.
A flock of chickens can do a good job of weed management, if penned in the vegetable garden early enough to allow 90 days after their removal before the crop is harvested (above ground crops) and 120 days for in-ground crops. These are commonsense food safety precautions required for Organic certification.
There are two main approaches to weed management. The first is to remove enough weeds so that crop yields are not compromised in an economically significant way. The second is to minimize weed seed production, aiming for very low weed populations, meaning little weed management work in the future. This preventive weed management requires more precise attention in the early years, including removing weeds that are not, in themselves, causing measurably lower yields. Either approach can be successful, but the preventive strategy is a good one for people who are growing older (!) and want less work in the future, while maintaining an income and satisfying work.
Chapter Four covers mechanical and other physical weed management methods. “The effect of tillage or cultivation on a weed population depends on the interaction between the nature of the soil disturbance and the ecological characteristics of the weed.” In other words, to control a particular weed, we need to know the features of that weed and choose methods of cultivation and tillage that will exploit the weaknesses of that weed, and take account of the weather, the soil conditions and the crop stage. Timing determines success, and the greatest success comes from using a planned sequence incorporating several operations.
There is a very clear explanation of vegetative reproduction of perennial weeds and how to thwart that process. Tilling chops up roots, which grow into new plants. Partial damage to perennial roots stimulates sprouting of dormant buds. The best chance of success comes from exhausting the root or rhizome pieces. With most perennial weeds, carbohydrates flow from the storage organ into the leaves until they produce enough food to return some to the root. The ideal stage to kill such plants is when the pieces of the storage organs drop to their minimum weight after growing new leaves. Generally this is after three or four leaves have grown.
Tilled fallow is a time without crops, when the plot is tilled often enough to stop weeds proliferating. Most annuals take 5 weeks to set seed, and so once every three weeks is a good tilling frequency, for management of both perennial and annual weeds. This will inevitably damage the soil structure. Growing a fast cover crop (buckwheat or a mustard) between tillages will reduce the damage.
A discussion of ten Principles of Mechanical Weeding follows. A useful chart of two dozen weeding implements and tools provides information on when and how they are best used, which crops they are most suited to and what their limitations are. The chart is followed by pages of clear drawings of various cultivators, with explanations of when they are most useful.
Often one goal is the creation of a surface layer of small aggregates allowing good air circulation and decreasing germination of new weeds. This is widely called a “dust mulch”. Weeding early, shallowly and often, is widely shared advice. Shallow soil disturbance can eliminate a large percentage of annual weeds, without bringing new seed to the surface. Small weeds do not re-root easily, as they have only small reserves of energy. Weeds over 2” (5cm) tall are more likely to re-root.
After the profiles of five farms with great weed management strategies, explaining their overall approach to weeds, comes the directory of weeds, including information on resources, naming, ecological information, recommendations for management and the limitations of those recommendations (for example, whether or not they have been field-tested).
There are summary tables of summer annual weeds, winter annual weeds, and perennial weeds, each subdivided into broadleaf weeds and grasses, with information on characteristics. To help with visualizing seed sizes from the weights given, they helpfully tell us that a lettuce seed is likely to weigh 1mg. The tables are followed by 3-4 page profiles for each weed, including several clear photos of the weed at different stages of growth, management suggestions, ecology and a handful of references for further reading.
There are tips on developing management plans for weed species that are not in the book. Some weeds are a big problem in a small geographical area, and of not much consequence elsewhere. Record your own observations, using the questions provided to focus your attention and identify the weed. Each taxonomic level (family, genus, species) can provide actionable information. There are some great resources for weed identification, leading me to find one from Virginia Tech https://weedid.cals.vt.edu/.
There is hope for dealing with even the worst weeds! “Competitive cover crops are effective for suppressing bermudagrass.” Example: A dense fall sowing of winter rye, barley or oats, harvested for forage in spring, with the stubble plowed under to allow sowing of a very competitive summer cover crop like cowpeas. The dense shade following the late spring soil disturbance will suppress the grass.
The directory is the main part of the book, and the part where you will want to search out your worst problems and form a plan. Keep this book in a place you can always find it when needed, for the rest of your farming life!
We are almost at a big turning point of the growing season, the Summer Solstice, the longest day. We know that day-length influences plant growth, and that after the Solstice, some crops will gradually take longer and longer to reach maturity (others will bolt). Crops more influenced by temperature (like sweet corn) will continue to mature faster while the summer temperatures rise.
Here in central Virginia, most brassicas are planted in spring and again in fall. Unless your broccoli keeps going all summer, consider sowing a new crop for fall. Although it can be hard to think about sowing seeds in mid-summer, it’s very worthwhile to grow fall brassicas because as they mature in the cooler fall days they develop delicious flavor, while weeds and pests slow down. These crops need little care once established. The most challenging part is getting the seedlings growing well while the weather is hot. However, unlike some cool weather vegetables such as spinach and lettuce, brassica seeds actually germinate very well at high temperatures. The ideal is 77-85°F (25-29°C), but up to 95°F (35°C) works. Given enough water, summer seedlings will emerge in only 3 days. Once they have emerged, the challenge begins. As well as temperature and moisture in the right ranges, the seedlings need light (very plentiful in mid-summer!), nutrients, good airflow, and protection from bugs. We deal organically with flea beetles, Harlequin bugs, and sometimes cabbage worms. Our main defenses are farmscaping, and netting (and previously, rowcover).
My book Sustainable Market Farming, has a chapter devoted to Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale and Collards in Fall.
Timing sowing of fall broccoli and cabbage
The number of days to harvest given in seed catalogs is usually that needed in spring – plants grow faster in warmer temperatures. To determine when to sow for fall plantings, start with your average first frost date (as an indicator of cooling temperatures), then subtract the number of days from seeding to transplant (21-28), the number of days from transplanting to harvest for that variety (given in the catalog description), the length of harvest period (we harvest broccoli for 35 days minimum), and another 14 days for the slowing rate of plant growth in fall compared to spring. For us, the average first frost is 10/14-10/20, and we sow 53-day broccoli 21+53+35+14 days before 10/14, which is 6/13-6/19. The last date for sowing broccoli and cabbage is about 3 months before the first fall frost date. In our case that means July 14–20.
Planning and crop rotations for fall brassicas
Our rotation plan shows us a long way ahead how many row feet of fall broccoli and cabbage we can fit in. By the time we order our seeds in the New Year, we know roughly what we expect to grow. In February we draw up a spreadsheet of how much of what to sow when.
Because fall brassicas are transplanted in summer, it’s possible to grow another vegetable crop, or some good cover crops, earlier in the year. An over-wintered cover crop mix of winter rye and crimson clover or hairy vetch could be turned under at flowering, and be followed by a short-term warm weather cover such as buckwheat, soy or cowpeas. Brassicas are heavy nitrogen consumers. To minimize pests and diseases, don’t use brassica cover crops.
Systems for growing fall broccoli and cabbage transplants
The same systems you use for growing transplants in spring can also work well for fall. It can help to have your plants outside on benches, above the 3’ (1m) height of flea beetles. A shade-house might be ideal too. Direct sowing, in “stations” (groups of several seeds sown at the final crop spacing), works for small areas.
We use an outdoor nursery seedbed and bare root transplants, which suits us best. The nursery bed is near our daily work area, so we’ll pass by and water it. Having the seedlings directly in the soil “drought-proofs” them to some extent. They can form deep roots, and do not dry out so fast.
For the seedbeds we use ProtekNet on wire hoops. Choose the mesh size carefully. One with small holes is needed to keep flea beetles away – 25 gm or 47 gm. Overly thick rowcover can make the seedlings more likely to die of fungal diseases in hot weather – good airflow is vital.
Sowing fall broccoli and cabbage
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 transplanted crop row. We aim for 3 seeds per inch (about 1 cm apart). This means sowing 36 seeds for 10 plants transplanted on 18” (46 cm) spacing. And we do that twice (72 seeds for 10 plants!), in two sowings a week apart, to ensure we have enough plants of the right size.
Our seedbeds have an 8-week program – see the spreadsheet above for examples of our timing, quantities and varieties. I like to have a regular afternoon every week to grow the transplants. If you’re growing for fewer than 100 people, you won’t need a whole afternoon! Each week after the first week, we also weed the previously sown plants, and thin to 1” (2.5 cm) apart. Then we check the germination, record it, and resow if needed to make up the numbers.
Transplanting fall broccoli and cabbage
We transplant most brassicas at 4 true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing at this time of year). It is best to transplant 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.
We transplant 6 days a week for an hour and a half or two hours in late afternoon or early evening, for 2-3 weeks. We water the soil in the plot an hour before starting to transplant. It is very important at this time of year to get adequate water to the plants undergoing the stress of being transplanted. Likewise, good transplanting technique is vital. Water a lot more than you do in spring. If you have drip irrigation, you can easily give a little water in the middle of each day too, which will help cool the roots.
We transplant broccoli and cabbage in 34” (86 cm) or 36” (91 cm) rows, which is wider than necessary. Beds or paired rows can fit more plants in the same space, while still allowing room to walk. We hammer in stakes along the row, and attach ropes between them. These both mark the rows for transplanting, and support the netting that we use after transplanting to keep the bugs off. An 84” (2.1 m) width netting can form a square tunnel over two crop rows, giving good airflow. Wire hoops are an alternative. Watering the soil before planting, as well as afterwards, helps survival during the hot summer days.
Aftercare of fall brassicas
About a month after transplanting the broccoli and cabbage (late August-early September), we remove the netting, stakes, ropes and the sticks we use to hold down the netting edges, then hoe and till between the rows. Next we broadcast a mix of mammoth red clover, Ladino white clover and crimson clover. We use overhead sprinkler irrigation to get the clover germinated, and it also helps cool the brassicas. The ideal is to keep the soil surface damp for the few days it takes the clover to germinate. Usually watering every two days is enough. We may replace the netting if pest pressure seems bad.
If all goes well, we keep the clover growing for the whole of the next year, mowing several times to control annual weeds. You could, instead, till in the clover in late spring or early summer to plant a food crop then.
Harvesting fall broccoli and cabbage
We harvest all our brassicas three times each week, and take the produce directly to our cooler.
Our main broccoli harvest period is 9/10-10/15, with smaller amounts being picked either side of those dates We like our broccoli heads to get as large as possible (without opening up) before we harvest. We test by pressing down on the head with our fingertips and spreading our fingers. We harvest as soon as the beads start to “spring” apart. This may be a little late for other growers. We also look at the individual beads and aim to harvest before the beads even think about opening. We cut the stem diagonally to reduce the chance of dew and rain puddling, which can cause rotting of the stem. Later we harvest the side shoots, until they are too small to bother with.
Cabbage heads up from 9/25 and holds in the field till late November. Cabbage is mature when the outer leaf on the head (not the outer plant leaves which are left in the field) is curling back on itself. For storage cabbage, we set the cut heads upside down on the stump, in the “basket” of outer leaves, and come back an hour later to gather them into net bags. This allows the cut stem to dry out and seal over, improving storability.
If you are already looking ahead to the fall, see my post Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing, Harvest and Storage, for lots of links to more info on season extension into cold weather; fall and winter vegetable harvests; and fall and winter vegetable storage. I will write more about other fall brassicas in the near future.
I started to make in-person bookings again a year ago, then Omicron arrived and lots of conferences switched to being virtual. The only in-person event I attended this spring was the PASA conference, which I enjoyed a lot. I am still doing some virtual events, and planning some live ones too. Everything is subject to change!
As of right now I have two in-person events booked, and one new podcast interview. June and July are the months for speakers to apply to make winter and spring conference presentations, so I’ll be doing that! See my Events Tab for ideas I have of which events to apply to.
CAFF was developed to strengthen and expand our food and farming system, enhance local communities, and provide opportunities for farmers, food entrepreneurs and food system leaders.
Combining traditional and experiential learning opportunities, their Farm School and Apprenticeship programs teach the production and business skills to develop resilient and sustainable businesses.
CAFF is dedicated to increasing the number of thriving farms and farmers in Arkansas. To accomplish this, the center provides farm education, training, networking, and resources. Creating a supportive farm community network will bring more people into farming and help retain current farmers by increasing their success.
Join CAFF at the farm to learn about extending your growing season with high tunnels. Space for this class is limited.
The CAFF Jan. 11 to March 1 two-hour courses remain available for viewing through Oct. 31. To pay the $10 access fee, please visit the registration page and email Heather Friedrich, program manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm receipt.
Make the most of your space and time growing vegetables at home using planting schedules and techniques timed to the seasons, seed varieties, crop rotation, and use of protective structures such as coldframes and greenhouses. Learn labor saving and innovative planting and soil fertility techniques for growing and harvesting a full range of fresh, delicious, organic vegetables. Fill your salad bowl and dinner plate year round!
Accidental Gods Podcast
Exploring the liminal space between science and spirituality, philosophy and politics, art, creativity – working towards the conscious evolution of humanity.
Accidental Godsis two women, Manda Scott and Faith Tilleray, dreaming of a different future. Faith Tilleray designs the website and the Instagram feed. Manda Scott is a podcaster (also: novelist, smallholder, renegade economist etc. etc. ). Both are living in the UK.
Book Review: Grow More Food, a Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Getting the Biggest Harvest Possible from a Space of Any Size, by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm. Storey Publishing, 2022, 300 pages, diagrams, $24.95
This book, Grow More Food, is an updated version of the authors’ 2015 book, High Yield Vegetable Gardening. I have been a big fan of that book since it was published. This book has much the same content but is a larger format with color photos and a larger print size.
Some of the content has been rearranged into a different, more logical, order, (athough a good index does make all topics findable). Some of the more technical or professional terms have been changed from the earlier book. “High yield” has become “productive”. The real or fictional example gardeners have almost disappeared, although drawings of their gardens live on.
If you have High Yield Vegetable Gardening and like it a lot, as I do, you probably don’t need to buy Grow More Food, unless as a gift for a friend, or if you are going to relegate the old version to the greenhouse or shed as a quick reference work. You may like to have the bigger print and the more informative and inspiring color photos in your house for periods of longer contemplation and planning. The new one, however, does not have the lay-flat spiral binding of the old one. The book is definitely a good one to keep on hand, in one version or the other.
The authors founded Seattle Urban Farm Company in 2007, and have been running it since, helping more people grow food. Their focus is to ‘find joy in the simple pleasure of doing a little better each season.” Here they are bringing proven professional techniques for bigger harvests to vegetable gardeners on any scale. The information is presented very clearly, without jargon, so that home gardeners will easily benefit. As I said in my review of High Yield Vegetable Gardening, this also provides newbie professional growers with solid information on techniques that work, without the need to understand everything at once.
These are gardeners after my own heart. Here are details you will benefit from knowing and putting into practice, which are not found in many gardening books: interpreting and using soil tests, choosing onion varieties that work at your latitude, succession planting for continuous harvests, flame-weeding, making soil block mix of the right consistency, dealing with salt build-up in greenhouse soils, minimizing nitrate accumulation in winter greens under cover. There are lots of useful charts.
This edition has more emphasis on building and maintaining good soil, and includes sidebars that dig deep into particular topics such as providing onion flavors all year, making space dedicated to perennial vegetables, converting farm-scale soil amendment rates to garden-scale ones, setting transplants at different depths, hand pollination of cucurbits, and the role of ethylene in crop storage.
The sequence of topics starts with clarifying your garden priorities, planning and record keeping: “It’s no exaggeration to say that a detailed garden plan alone can double or triple the productivity of a garden.” There’s help in choosing the right size of garden for your needs, experience and available time. Next, create a map or drawing of the garden site, including buildings, paving and trees, and consider which crops to grow. The chart of annual crops includes days to harvest and whether to direct sow or transplant. This enables gardeners to compare short-season crops, long-season crops and those in between, to plan food for the whole season; and sequential follow-on crops to make best use of all your space.
Once you’ve figured which crops to grow, how much of each to plant, when (and how often) to plant them, you can create your planting calendar. There are options for format, and a real-life example with arugula. This is followed with a sample section of a planting calendar with harvest tracker and room for notes for next year.
The next big question is “Where?” Make a map of your garden and think about a crop rotation to help you get the best yields by avoiding planting the same crop in the same place each year. A two-year rotation simply has two groups of crops and two beds or plots that flip each year. A three-year rotation can consider which crops need heavy feeding and follow two years of heavy feeders with one of light feeders. Also, if you don’t have soil-borne diseases, consider the counter-intuitive idea of following brassicas with brassicas in the spring and fall of a year, and avoiding brassicas in that bed for the next two or three years. For gardeners like me who grow a lot of brassicas, this makes planning a rotation easier. As well as an overall map of the whole garden, make a planting schedule for each bed, with space to write things down.
A pest and disease management log is another useful piece of record-keeping. It will remind you when to be on the lookout for particular problems, and what strategies worked for you previously. A garden log or diary with entries each day you garden can end with a To-Do list, including things to buy, and watch for.
And that’s just the first part of five. The second is about building healthy soil, providing a diverse ecosystem, high nutrient-level crops and big harvests. There’s information on making boxed beds, if you want to go in that direction, or lasagna beds, where organic materials are piled in layers, and tilled beds incorporating amendments. Tarping (covering soil with tarps to smother weeds) is also discussed. Mulches for pathways are compared. There is a very clear description of taking, submitting and understanding results from soil tests, accompanied by an annotated soil report.
There are clear instructions on making quality compost, buying compost, improving soil with cover crops, and mulching over winter. This chapter includes a manageable chart of “beginner” cover crops (buckwheat, four clovers, peas, vetch, mustard, oats and winter rye). Then comes the weed-reduction chapter. Strategies include dealing with weeds while they are small and seed-free, hoeing (photos of various types, with pros and cons), flaming (good safety tips here!), tarping and mulch.
Part 3 is Get to Know Your Plants – “Grow More Food by Planting the Right Varieties at the Right Time with the Best Care.” Smart gardening, with no wasted effort. Choose suitable varieties (open pollinated ones and hybrids) to match your climate and your goals. Order sensible quantities, store leftovers carefully (cool, dry, dark, airtight, mouse-proof) for use next year. There’s a two-page chart of Seed Lifespan, including parsnips and peanuts, something for every climate. Seed treatments to improve yields are covered, including soaking, scarification and inoculation.
The chapter on transplanting and direct seeding advises on which technique works for which crops. There’s information about supporting plants, from hilling up with soil, to making trellises. Supplemental fertilizers (during the growing season) are useful for some crops, not needed for others (the lists are in the book). The general theme is that heavy feeders and fast-growing crops will benefit. There’s an interesting section on pruning for production, including for good air circulation; for delaying bolting; for encouraging earlier harvests (by root pruning); and removing late flowers to focus energy on maturing fruits already formed.
The goal of managing pests and diseases is not to eliminate them all, but to control levels by cooperating with and stimulating natural processes that restore balance. This process starts with preventing problems, and ramps up if this does not succeed well enough. Develop good soil; attract beneficial insects; use rowcover or netting to keep expected insect pests from vulnerable crops; use deterrent sprays such a baking soda, hot pepper, garlic, kaolin clay for various problems; bring in beneficial organisms.
To nip any problems in the bud, it is important to monitor or scout your gardens at least once a week, looking for problems. Distinguish problems caused by extreme temperatures and water shortage from those caused by pests and diseases. Find good ID resources. You may be able to hand pick or trap enough pests to make the difference between a damaging outbreak and a trivial level. The authors explain why it is unwise to rush for the sprayer. Sprays are a last resort, even organic ones, because they may kill unintended insects, and they leave some of the pests alive to develop resistance, making that spray ineffective in the long run. There’s a two-page chart for pest and disease management strategies.
Part 4 is entitled Create Efficient Systems. It describes how to use your resources well, so time, money and space are not wasted, and you get the best from your efforts. Set up a home nursery to grow your own transplants, and plant the varieties you want in the quantities you want, to fit your schedule. Here are details on light intensity and where on the color spectrum the light should fall. You may be surprised just how much light plants need. For overall plant growth, general full-spectrum lights are just fine for a nursery, where the plants are headed outdoors to the natural source. Growing plants to maturity indoors is another (costly) matter.
The photos on making soil blocks are very helpful, and it’s a topic not covered in many places. Various types of plant container are covered. Making your own seed-starting schedule is explained. There’s info on propagating from cuttings, grafting with silicone clips, and watering or misting tiny plants. The next chapter covers irrigation of more kinds: drip systems (good description and photos for newbies) and sprinklers (including oscillating lawn-type sprinklers, wobblers, impact sprinklers and microsprinklers). This section will clear up a lot of confusion. Whichever you choose, make yourself an irrigation map, helping ensure you run pipelines and hoses along the best route, and set up sensible zones. Designs that minimize the need to move equipment around during the growing season will preserve your sanity and sense of well-being.
Part 5 is Extend and Expand the Harvest. This includes storage. Good techniques and timely harvesting let you get the most food from your crops, and eat them at peak quality and flavor. Extending the growing season includes starting as early as possible, finishing as late as possible, helping crops get through hot weather as well as cold, and planting successions to give you a seamless harvest through the growing season. Try crops you have not grown before.
The section on choosing protective structures will help you think about the pros and cons, costs and benefits of low tunnels (with rowcover or clear plastic), cold frames, greenhouses, high tunnels (also called hoophouses), and combinations of low tunnels inside high tunnels. If you are undecided on this topic, Grow More Food could save you from buying the wrong thing and wasting many times its cover price. And it could save you the big disappointment of not getting the harvests you hoped for. Consider not just cost but also ease of use (let’s enjoy our gardening!), suitability for your climate, and gained productivity. Glass greenhouses and greenhouse heating are often not cost-effective, and heating brings environmental costs too.
When weighing up design features, do the math for your own situation. I dislike the “comb” greenhouse bed design because it doesn’t work so well with drip tape. The authors say it maximizes usable space. But the difference is very small and the disadvantages are several. You lose the staging area of the lengthwise beds design. Many gardening books neglect methods of summer cooling, but the climate emergency is upon us. Here you will find good ideas about shade cloth and using overhead irrigation for cooling.
The next chapter is about timely harvesting and successful storage. Remember when planning your garden to think about how much food you can use, including not just how much your household can eat, but also how much time you have each week for harvesting and storage. There is a good discussion about becoming a skilled harvester. For each likely crop there is a short description of which part to harvest, and how to recognize maturity.
Next is a section on harvesting “hidden” crops – extra harvests form your garden: weeds, less usual parts of crop plants, such as flowers, garlic scapes, carrot leaves, pea shoots and tendrils, and sweet potato leaves. You can harvest more food from the same plants by choosing varieties that provide multiple harvests (loose leaf crops, broccoli side shoots, turnip and beet greens and roots).
There’s a bit on washing crops, and food safety. Then harvesting for maximum freshness and quality, and storage, short and long term. Not everything should be refrigerated! Onions, garlic, winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes need to be cured before long-term storage. Be sure to get the details right, or you could have big losses. There is a 4-page chart of storage conditions for various crops. Although I agree with the authors on almost everything they write, I wouldn’t wipe down winter squash with bleach. I’ve never found it necessary.
At the end of the book are worksheets you can photocopy and use. Or you can download them from Seattle Urban Farm. They include a Crop Amount Worksheet, Planting Calendar Worksheet, Planting Dates Worksheet, and Garden Planning Chart. The website also has sample log pages for a specific bed, for the garden as a whole, a pest and disease management log, harvest log, and planting calendar with harvest tracking.
There is a resource section and I was particularly happy to find two resources for non-toxic wood preservatives for garden use. The index looks very thorough – 21 columns for 300 pages.
The Seattle Urban Farm Company has a blog and a podcast, and their Projects page will give you lots of ideas on garden layout and design. Their shop sells training sessions, webinars, and individual coaching.
We’ve reached mid-May, the time of year to transplant our okra. Okra is a tropical annual in the mallow family, and is widely adapted where the frost-free season is long enough. Okra is heat- and drought-tolerant and has few serious pests or diseases. Those in hot climates will need to deal with its exuberant growth in mid-summer. Those in cold climates should choose fast-maturing varieties and transplant into black plastic. In areas with cold nights, okra can only be grown in a hoophouse.
We like Cow Horn okra from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which gives good yields and sturdy plants in our zone 7a climate. It is one of a few varieties that can grow relatively large pods without their becoming tough. We are sometimes not good at finding all the pods when harvesting, so it is an advantage to us if they are still good to eat when bigger than normal. SESE has an Okra Growing Guide.
Spineless (easy to harvest) varieties include Clemson Spineless (56 days), and Evertender (50 days). Red-podded varieties include Burmese (58 days), a high-yielding dwarf heirloom, and Red Burgundy (49 days), reported to do well in “cooler” areas, although it will not do much until day time temperatures reach 80°F (27°C).
Crop Requirements and Yield
Okra does best in well-drained, fertile, loamy soils with high organic matter. Wet clay soils can drown the plants. It grows best with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0, although as high as 7.6 is still OK.
5 gmsows 50’ (15 m) at 6” (15 cm) spacing. Average yields are about 50-100 lb/100’ (7.6-15 kg/10 m). We grow 90’ (27 m) for 100 people, which provides enough for some pickling too.
According to Rodale’s 600 Answers, germination speed can be improved by freezing the seed overnight, then soaking in hot water for ½-1 hour before sowing. It needs to be warm enough to get your seed germinated: you can soak the seed for 8 hours in water at 88°F (31°C).
When we direct sow, we “station-sow” – we put three seeds ½-1” (1-2.5 cm) deep at each spot where we want a plant to grow. We do this on May 1, with rowcover, as this is around our last frost date, and we want to avoid disasters! Direct sow once the soil temperature averages 65°F (20°C), 3-4 weeks after last frost.
When seedlings have 3-4 leaves, we thin to the strongest seedling. Okra is sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got!
Usually we transplant, especially if we are intercropping. For transplants we sow April 15, using soil blocks or Winstrip 50-cell flats. I was amazed to learn that at 6″ (15 cm) tall, plants could have taproots three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m). To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can, carefully.
We transplant 3-4 week old starts – a plant with 3 or 4 leaves is ideal – at 18” (45 cm) spacing in a single row down the middle of a bed. We transplant May 11, 10 days later than the direct-sowing date. In the past we used wider in-row spacing, but found we could get a higher yield with the “hedge-like” closer spacing.
Some growers plant as close as 6” (15 cm) in the row, with 5’ (1.5m) between rows, or plant double rows with 12” (30 cm) between plants, and wider spacing between the beds. Thick planting requires very fertile soil, and risks diseases from poor air circulation. Wide spacing can lead to heavily branched plants, and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area. It may lead to a later start to the harvest, as flowering is delayed while the plant grows bigger.
Okra is slow-growing until hot weather arrives. We sometimes take advantage of this and its upright growth habit to transplant okra into a bed of early cabbage. We transplant cabbage in two rows along a 4’ (1.2 m) bed on March 10 and the okra in a single row down the middle on May 11. We mulch the cabbage, which has the disadvantage for the okra, of cooling the soil, so don’t try this if direct sowing! At first the cabbages are relatively small, and the okra uses the open space in the middle of the bed. As the plants grow, we remove outer leaves of the cabbage that might overshadow the okra. Finally, we harvest the cabbage and leave the okra to grow to full size. This method saves space, and efficiently uses our time to help two crops with one weeding.
This post is part of what I have written about okra in my book Sustainable Market Farming. Buy the book to read the rest, including crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting and post-harvest care of okra.
The Whole Okra
See my review of Chris Smith’s book The Whole Okra. Chris has grown 125 varieties of okra, and still counting, and cooked it in many different recipes. His book includes using the oil from the seeds, eating the leaves; making okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights; okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. Here are instructions for freezing the sudden glut of okra that often arrives at some point in the summer, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips. Chris has a video of taste testing on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAy0pouxlME
This is the first of my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I’ll talk about planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. I’ll have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.
Strawberries are the focus fruit for May
May is the month in our climate, to harvest and weed strawberries. Actually weeding strawberries in bare soil is a job that needs doing once a month from February to November here! We don’t have any strawberries in our gardens this year. Once upon a time, we grew matted rows, where you keep the same bed in production for multiple years, removing the oldest plants to make space for younger more vigorous plants. Weeds were our downfall. Once you let weeds seed in a strawberry bed, you have lost the battle. In our climate, we have cold-weather weeds and warm weather weeds. Semi-permanent strawberry beds get them all. I wouldn’t choose this method again.
I recommend harvesting three days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Use shallow containers, although strawberries don’t crush as easily as raspberries. Turn each ripe-looking strawberry over to make sure it’s ripe underneath too. We will harvest with white tips, but not green. Commercial strawberries that will travel long distance are harvested ¼ green and arrive very red, but with not much flavor.
Nip through the stem of the fruit with your nails and set the fruit in the container. Also, now or preferably separately, collect up any moldy or bird-bitten fruits to compost. It’s better not to handle healthy plants after moldy fruit, but if you have dry weather and not many moldy ones, it’s very tempting to remove them as you go. When “Mouseberry”, our nickname for Botrytis grey mold, is only a minor problem, we just hurl each one as far from the strawberry bed as we can, rather than collect them up.
Unblemished strawberries can be stored for several days in the refrigerator. Do not wash before refrigerating, as this leads to rot. If you are planning to process lots of strawberries for drying, jam, juice or other value-added products, I recommend finding a simple little tool, a pair of round-ended tweezers about 2” (5 cm) long and ½” (1 cm) across. You can twist our the green tops quickly with minimal wastage.
When to plant strawberries
In case you don’t yet have strawberries, and now wish you did, here are some considerations about when to plant. Many gardening books are written in more northerly climates, where bare-root transplants are set out in early spring. But then it is necessary to pinch off the flowers the first year. And still weed once a month! We found it better here to plan for September planting of runners we had potted up in July, leaving them attached to their mother plants until time to make the new bed. They are less likely to die if still attached to the well-rooted mother plant. Fall-planted strawberries do not need to have the flowers removed in their first spring. It is not easy to find bare-root transplants to buy in the fall.
In Virginia, many commercial growers plant new strawberries on plastic mulch every year, buying in plugs. The costs are covered by the high price that strawberries bring in when sold. We were not selling, but feeding our intentional community. This means that produce that would get high prices doesn’t repay us for the time spent. We need nutrients for a well-balanced diet, not fancy stuff. This issue also came up for us when we grew ginger in our hoophouse. Tasty and enjoyable, but not lots of food for the space and time.
As a balance, we settled on keeping two beds (one early variety, one late) for two years each, using landscape fabric with holes melted in it. Each year we would make 1 new patch, till in the older one after 2 harvests. Some years we bought plants, and we also figured out a good propagation method, which gave us plants when we needed them, without too much money or labor. We had backup plans in case we failed to propagate enough replacements.
In early June we’d prepare new beds if going for bare-root plants; after fruiting we’d dismantle the two-year-old bed, renovate the one-year-old bed, and in early July prepare the new bed if using plugs. We did the propagation of our own plugs during July, setting up a misting tent. We planted the new plugs in early August. I’ll go into detail about these tasks when we get to that time of year.
Some varieties are patented and it is illegal to propagate your own without permission from the patent holder. It’s most illegal to sell plants you have propagated from a patented variety. Technically, it is also illegal to propagate for you own use, and even to let strawberry runners root themselves beside a mother plant. Not all varieties are patented. Cornell has a page Patent Status of Select Strawberry Varieties with info for varieties that do well in NY State. It includes when patents expire. StrawberryPlants.org has a lot of information, including an interactive variety list. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include info on which are patented.
Climate change, challenges and options
Our climate is variable, and is changing to more of all extremes, so we need to change our systems to meet the challenges. It always helps to have a plan B.
Fruit still available in May
Rhubarb can be harvested until the stems get too thin. April is its main month here in central Virginia. Weed and water. Lop off any flower heads or buds, to concentrate energy into the stems.
Other fruit care in May
Install blueberry netting before the fruit sets, so the birds will have no reason to be interested. Weed, water, top up mulch, as needed. Check periodically to ensure the netting has no holes.
Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. Mow aisles as needed. New vines: remove side branches from trunks, and fruitlets. I like to walk through in May to record the condition of the grape vines.