Sweet corn, potatoes and okra

Our first sweet corn of the season (Bodacious).
Photo Pam Dawling

Sweet Corn

We sowed our first sweet corn on 4/18, eight days earlier than usual this year, because we had auspicious weather. We look at the leaves of the white oaks to decide when it is warm enough for corn planting. The oak leaves should be as big as squirrel’s ears. Phenology signs like this are especially useful when the weather is extremely variable, which we are getting more of as climate disruption has got us in its grip.

Our first sweet corn sowing is always a bit of a risk. In fact we often prepare for this by sowing some corn seeds in styrofoam Speedling flats, the same day we sow the first corn planting outdoors. Read more about this seedling technique and transplanting corn.

Our third planting of sweet corn on the left, fourth in the middle, 5th (barely emerging) on the right.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’ve been harvesting sweet corn since July 2, which is two days earlier than our target start date, so we’re very happy. Initially, of course, we got smaller amounts, but we are now harvesting three times a week and getting good amounts. We are back up to 6 sowings this year, after we had to cut back for a couple of years. For a hundred people we sow an average of 1100 ft (335m) each time we plant, with each planting intended to last us 15 days (7 or 8 pickings). Our goal is sweet corn from July 4 to mid-October (our average first frost is October 20, a 13 year average from our own records).

Three varieties of sweet corn in one planting. On the left Bodacious; in the middle, red-flowered Kandy Korn; on the right, Silver Queen not yet fully grown.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Each sowing includes several varieties (with different numbers of days to maturity) on the same day, so a planting will give us at least two weeks of delicious corn. In this photo from a previous year, you can see (from left to right): later-maturing Silver Queen, not yet at full height; red-flowered Kandy Korn; fast-maturing shorter Bodacious. Each plant is only going to provide two or three ears, so to have enough, and to have a continuous supply, it is necessary to plan ahead. See the Succession Planting section ahead.

Sowing sweet corn

We have switched to sowing corn with the EarthWay seeder, with a homemade next-row marker. This is much quicker than sowing by hand, but does rely on providing overhead irrigation consistently until the seedlings emerge. Another trade-off is that we get more weeds germinating in the (watered) aisles than we did when we only watered the furrows at planting time. Drip irrigation would be another approach.  So far we have not lost corn to crows, which was the reason we took to the handsowing-under-ropes method some 20 years ago. Back then we also sowed our fist corn with a tractor seeder, but we had to follow that with putting up ropes, or we lost it all to birds. Details of our hand-sowing method are in this post from May 2016.

Staying on top of weeds in the sweet corn

Once we get to late June, more of our time in the garden is taken up by harvesting (a sign of success), leaving less time for weeding. We have a system I like that helps us stay on top of sweet corn weeds. Each time we sow sweet corn, we hoe the previous planting (about two weeks old), thin the plants to one every 8″-12″ (20-30cm) in the row, and wheel hoe or till between the rows. We have two Valley Oak wheel hoes that we really like. The handle height is adjustable and they are available with different width hoes (and other attachments). Our tiller is a BCS 732 from Earth Tools BCS

Don’t let this happen to you! Weedy young corn.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We also hoe the rows of the corn planting before that one (about 4 weeks old), and till between those rows and broadcast soybeans (which we till in lightly). Soybeans will grow in partial shade, handle the foot traffic of harvesting, and provide some nitrogen for the soil. For the last corn of the season, we undersow with a mix of soy and oats. After the harvest ends, we leave the patch alone, and the oats survive the first frosts (which kill the corn and the soy) and go on to be our winter cover crop for that plot. When it gets cold enough, the oats do die, and the plot becomes an easy one to bush hog and disk in the early spring for our March-planted potato crop. I like that opportunity to eliminate one round of disking, and to get a winter-killed cover crop established

As we harvest corn we pull out any pigweed that has somehow survived our earlier efforts. I learned at a Sustainable Weed Management workshop, that pigweed puts out its seeds in one big bang at the end, so pulling up huge pigweed is worthwhile, if it hasn’t yet seeded. (Actually you can see it for yourself, but before the workshop I hadn’t noticed!) Our soil has improved over the years, so it is now possible to uproot 5ft (1.5 m) pigweeds. Sometimes we have to hold the corn plant down with our feet, but we do almost always succeed in getting the weeds out, without damaging the corn.

Succession Planting for Sweet Corn

In Sustainable Market Farming I have a chapter on succession planting, and my slideshow on Succession Planting is one of my most popular ones. You can watch it right here.

I posted on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer. You can read it here:

Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer – Organic Gardening

Our sweet corn sowing dates and harvests from those plantings are

  1. 4/26, harvest 7/9 (with a few ears from 7/4)
  2. 5/19, harvest 7/24
  3. 6/6, harvest 8/8
  4. 6/24, harvest 8/23
  5. 7/7, harvest 9/7
  6. 7/16, harvest 9/22

Avoid mixing types of corn.

There’s a confusing aspect of hybrid corn varieties: There are several genotypes, and if you inadvertently plant a mixture of different types, it can lead to starchy unpleasant-flavored corn. Also don’t plant Indian corn, popcorn or any kind of flint or dent corn within 600′ (180 m) of your sweet corn. For this reason we grow only sweet corn in our garden. Ignore those cryptic catalog notes at your peril!

Dealing with raccoons, skunks and curious cats in the corn

We have trapped (and then killed) raccoons in our corn most years, and the past few years we’ve tried deterring them with nightly radio broadcasts. We have the large live mammal traps, and we found for raccoons, we needed to stake the trap down to the ground. I followed suggestions from Joanna Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm, staking the traps down and smearing peanut butter high on the stake in the back of the cage. Well, the first morning I caught a small, very white skunk! I let it out carefully. The next morning I caught the same skunk again. And the third morning, again. You can read more about how I let the skunks out. I’ve also caught some of our cats by accident.

Raccoons don’t seem to like Silver Queen as much as Kandy Korn, maybe because the husks are tighter and harder to rip off. Actually I like Kandy Korn better than Silver Queen too.

Okra

Cow Horn okra flower and pod.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have started harvesting our okra. It’s a little later than it might have been because we had to replant. The first planting had leggy seedlings due to not enough light soon enough in their lives. Then we planted it out with novice helpers, and they didn’t plant them deep enough. The feeble stems couldn’t take it. We made an attempt to hill them up to give more protection to the stems. Another mistake we made was over-watering. When we pulled up some of the dead plants for our postmortem, they reminded me of retted flax stems – the fibers were still there, with the soft tissue rotted away. This is why I think the problem is that we over watered rather than under-watered.

This year we are trying Carmine Splendor, a red okra from Johnny’s, as well as our usual favorite Cow Horn from Southern Exposure.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We like Cow Horn for its tall plants, high productivity and the fact that the pods can get relatively large without getting fibrous. They are still tender at 5-6″, which is the size we used to harvest at. Some years we have attached a card to the handles of the pruners we use for this job, with a life-size drawing of a 5″ pod. This helps new crew get it right.

We do find it very hard to convince our cooks that we have specially chosen this “commune-friendly” variety so they don’t have to deal with fiddly little okra pods when cooking for 100. We’ve had to compromise and harvest at 4″. Hence the venturing-out to another variety, accepting people are hard to convince about Cow Horn!

We grow a 90′ row, with plants about 18″ apart in the row. This is enough for the hundred of us (some people never eat okra despite the cooks’ best efforts!)

Carmine Splendot okra plant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Carmine Splendor is a 51 day (from transplanting) F1 hybrid, with sturdy 5-sided pods that are deep red when small. I haven’t tasted them yet.

Potatoes

June-planted potatoes emerging from mulch in mid-July.
photo Pam Dawling

Our June-planted potatoes are starting to come up through the hay mulch, and we need to walk through and free the trapped shoots. This means we walk through investigating the spots where we expect there to be a potato plant but we don’t see one. If we find a trapped shoot, we open up the mulch to let the plant see the light. We do this same job with garlic in late November or early December.

This week we are harvesting our March planted potatoes. I just dug 30lbs for tonight’s dinner. Yes, lots of diners! The rest of the crop will be harvested using a digging machine on Thursday.

We harvested our March-planted potatoes 21 days ago, and we are in the process of sorting them and managing conditions in our root cellar to cure the potatoes and help them store well.

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle
Click here for our Root Cellar Warden” instructions from last year.

Dormancy Requirements of Potatoes

We are researching the dormancy requirements of potatoes in an effort to store ours so they don’t sprout when we don’t want them to!

What I know so far about dormancy is that potatoes need a dormancy period of 4-8 weeks after harvest before they will sprout. So if you plan to dig up an early crop and immediately replant some of the potatoes for a later crop, take this into account. Get around this problem by refrigerating them for 16 days, then chitting them in the light for 2 weeks. The company of apples, bananas or onions will help them sprout by emitting ethylene.

To avoid sprouting, keep the potatoes below 50F (10C) once they are more than a month from harvest, avoid excess moisture, and avoid “physiological aging” of the potatoes, caused by stressing them with fluctuating temperatures, among other things.

Tobacco Hornworm pupa

Just had to add this, which I dug up yesterday. These brutes are about 2″ (5 cm) long. They are heavy and they move slightly. Also, check out the comments on the last post and be sure to see SESE’s Ken Bezilla’s Instagram of a hornworm in black light.

This is the pupa of the tobacco hornworm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Dealing with Hornworms on Tomatoes

 

A large tobacco hornworm. Note the fake eyes near the horn at the tail end.
Photo Pam Dawling

Two summers ago, I wrote about Hunting Hornworms on Tomato Plants.

Here we are in July again, and here are the hornworms again! Yesterday, in two 80 ft (24.4 m) rows of tomatoes, I found 53 inches (1.35m) of hornworms! There were 24, varying in length from 1” (2.5 cm) to 4” (10 cm). Today I found even more: 42 caterpillars totaling 85” (2.2m)! They are stripping leaves and munching on the green fruit.

In our hornworm photos, you might notice ours are not the same as yours. Ours are tobacco hornworms, not tomato hornworms, but both are bad news and both attack tomato plants. Before Twin Oaks Community started here in 1967, the land was a tobacco farm. Tobacco hornworms have a red (not black) horn, and diagonal white lines, not arrowhead vees.

Hawk moth (mother of hornworms) caught in a web of a zipper spider. Photo Pam Dawling

Hornworms hatch from eggs laid by the night-flying Carolina sphinx moth or  Tobacco hawk moth. This year I did catch one of the moths, and kill it, but we still have plenty of caterpillars. The moths hatch from strange coppery pupae with pipes or spouts attached, which overwinter in the soil. Even our most vigilant caterpillar-hunting seems to miss some, which then drop to the ground to pupate. Another way to break the lifecycle is to close the hoophouse at dusk every night (and open it promptly every morning before it gets too hot), but we’ve decided not to go that route.

Hornworm with parasitic wasp pupae.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hornworms often get parasitized outdoors by a tiny braconid wasp that lays eggs in the backs of the caterpillars. The larvae develop inside the caterpillar and then the pupae develop as white rice-grain-like cocoons sticking out of the back of the hornworm. Usually our friend the parasitic wasp doesn’t come inside the hoophouse and to get parasites into the hoophouse hornworms we have to bring in parasitized hornworms from outdoors. This doesn’t work so well, because the hoophouse tomatoes are a month earlier than the outdoor ones, and the hornworm cycle is well underway in the hoophouse by the time the parasitic wasps are in action outdoors. This year we’ve found several parasitized hornworms indoors in the past few days, and we are very happy.

Hornworms have stripped these tomato leaves.
Photo Pam Dawling

Meanwhile, we are conducting hunting raids every morning. To find where the hornworms are working, first look at the upper leaves of the tomatoes. If they are stripped bare down to the ribs, that’s a good place to look. Hornworms only like the tender upper leaves. If there are intact newer younger leaves, it might mean there was a hornworm, but it’s been removed already, and the plant is recovering. Another sign of hornworms in the area is chewed fruit. Another sign is “pineapple poop” – miniature brown pineapples or hand grenades. If you see fresh poop, look directly upwards – remember the law of gravity. The size of the poop is, naturally enough, in proportion to the size of the hornworm.

Hornworm poop on a tomato.
Photo Pam Dawling
Evidence of hornworms.
Photo Pam Dawling

Having determined there is a hornworm in the vicinity, the next task is to find it. You’d think it would be easy – a big striped caterpillar like that. Not so! They are the exact same shade of green as tomato leaves. Hornworms can look remarkably similar to curled tomato leaves. The white stripes mimic the veins on the undersides of the leaves.

When I find some signs, I gaze at the area, looking for discrepancies in the pattern – bare stems with lumps on them. Usually the caterpillar is on the underside of a chewed stem, and often (but not always) they have their heads raised. When you find one, get a firm grip, pull it off the plant (they have strong legs which hold on tight), drop it on the ground and stomp on it. The skins are quite thick.

Found it! Hornworm on a tomato leaf.
Photo Pam Dawling

If I still can’t see the worm, I stand still and sway a bit from side to side, viewing the plant from different perspectives. It helps if the top of the plant is back-lit, but I do always check both sides of the row, no matter where the sun is. Knowing the signs of hornworm grazing can save you time looking everywhere. Focus your attention on where you are most likely to find them, and you will get the most success in the least time.

A large hornworm eating a tomato.
Photo Pam Dawling

Bt is an organically-approved pesticide spray that kills small caterpillars, without killing other insects. I don’t expect it to work on big hornworms. Hunting seems to be the way to go!

Our goal – tasty ripe tomatoes! These are Five Star Grape.
Photo Pam Dawling

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.

Hoophouse Squash Variety Trial, Garlic Recap, Flowers for Organic IPM

Golden Glory Squash in our hoophouse in mid-June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse Squash Variety Trial

A month ago I wrote about our hoophouse squash variety trials for pollination issues and blossom end rot. I think our problem was mostly unpollinated squash, rather than blossom end rot. Go to last month’s post for valuable links to distinguish the two conditions.

We planted 15 Golden Glory zucchini (good at setting fruit without pollinators) along with 25 Gentry yellow squash (a favorite variety, except that we had pollination troubles with it in our hoophouse for several years). The trial is almost over, we’re about to pull those plants, and we have plenty of squash coming in from our outdoor plantings now. The first outdoor planting includes some Golden Glory too, so if I have more news I write about it when it happens.

Gentry yellow squash in our hoophouse in mid-June
photo Pam Dawling

As I said last time, I recorded the number of small rotting squash we removed. The Golden Glory produced far fewer rotten unpollinated fruit.

Date 15 Golden Glory plants: rotted fruit Golden Glory: rotted fruit per plant 25 Gentry plants:

rotted fruit

Gentry:

rotted fruit per plant

5/13 2 0.13 12 0.48
5/14 2 0.13 5 0.2
5/17 0 0 32 1.28
5/21 15 1 54 2.16
5/27 9 0.6 39 1.56
6/4 13 0.9 29 1.2
6/10 2 0.13 11 0.46
6/14 2 0.13 9 0.43
Average per plant   0.38   0.97

 But low numbers of rotted fruits is not the only goal! Yield is important too, and the healthiness of the plants (which relates to yield).

We noticed that the plants were starting to die, and we thought of bacterial wilt. But when I tried the test for that disease, the results were negative. The test is to cut through the plant stem, rub the cut ends together, then slowly separate them. If the plant has bacterial wilt, there will be bacterial slime in strings between the stem ends when you slowly draw them apart. We got nothing like that. More research needed!

We pulled the dying squash, put them in a black trash bag and set that in the sun to cook.

Diseased squash, mid-June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Here’s what we found:

Date 15 Golden Glory plants: Number of healthy plants Golden Glory: Percentage of plants healthy 25 Gentry plants:

Number of healthy plants

Gentry:

Percentage of plants healthy

6/4 15 100% 25 100%
6/10 15 100% 24 96%
6/14 15 100% 21 84%
6/18 10 67% 20 80%
6/24 6 40% 18 72%

Initially, the Gentry started to keel over, then suddenly the Golden Glorys weren’t so glorious!

As far as yield, we did not measure it much. We only have notes from one day, 6/10. We harvested 7 squash from 15 Golden Glory plants (47%) and 14 Gentry from 24 plants (60%). Different people harvested on different days, meaning sometimes they were picked bigger than on other days. My sense is that the Golden Glory were not as productive throughout their harvest period. They are beautiful, the plants are open, easier to harvest from, and we had fewer rotten squash, and initially fewer dying plants. Is this enough to recommend them for an early hoophouse crop in future years?

My inclination is to also try another variety that is rated well for setting fruit without pollinators (hence fewer tiny rotting squash) and try harder to also record yield as well as problems next year!

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Garlic Recap

Our garlic is at the “Trim and Sort” stage, but depending where you garden, yours may be at a completely different stage. See my blogposts from the previous year, when I posted my Alliums for the Month Series.

Trimming garlic stems.
Photo by Brittany Lewis

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For people in colder climates than Virginia, you may be just starting to harvest your garlic. Learn from Margaret Roach (who grows in Massachusetts) in A Way to Garden

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Here are a couple of allium resources that didn’t make it into the Alliums for the Month Series

Mulching alliums

The Nordells on mulching alliums

RAMPS

Barry Glick sells ramps

“The Cat Is Out Of The Bag”!!!
Sunshine Farm & Gardens
696 Glicks Road
Renick WV 24966 USA

Ramps plants.
Photo Sunshine Farm and Gardens

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Flowers for Organic IPM

This is my post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog

Organic Integrated Pest Management involves tackling pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with reducing the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops. Follow prevention with avoidance, and finish with pest-killing if needed. I recommend the ATTRA online publication Organic Integrated Pest Management. Each  page is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info.

In May we transplant flowers in our vegetable garden to attract pollinators and pest predators. We like a combination of sunflowers, dill, borage, cosmos, calendula, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), zinnias. See my earlier Mother Earth News post Insectaries: Grow Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects

We sow sunflowers about every 10ft (3 m) in each of our bean beds. We are growing sesame surrounded by French marigolds in our hoophouse to deter nematodes, which we have in parts of our hoophouse soil. Sesame is apparently particularly good in deterring root knot nematodes, the type we have.

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

Book Review: Worm Farmer’s Handbook

 


Rhonda Sherman: The Worm Farmer’s Handbook: Mid- to Large-Scale Vermicomposting for Farms, Businesses, Municipalities, Schools and Institutions,

Chelsea Green, 2018, 247 pages, $29.95

 The Worm Farmer’s Handbook is exactly that. It explains very clearly how to farm worms on food scraps, manure, yard waste, paper and more. It goes beyond the “tub under the kitchen counter” scale of worm bin, upwards to commercial farming and community-scale enterprises. Rhonda Sherman is an excellent writer, inspiring, concise, personable, candid and very down-to-earth. Art and science. Detail without fluff. For beginners and upgraders.

The book includes the many reasons you might venture into vermiculture (worm production) or vermicomposting (worm cast production); earthworm biology; business plans; equipment set-ups; bedding and stocking rates; feeds and feeding methods; monitoring for success; harvest and post-harvest practices; and over two dozen global case studies, including some in places I bet you didn’t think of: Turkey, Afghanistan, and an air force base in Ohio. Some highly successful business people got some of their boost from worm farming.

Rhonda Sherman started as a recycling consultant, producing a much-scorned-at-the-time factsheet Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage, which became immensely popular. Answering the demand, she created the annual NC State Vermiculture Conference, the only one of its kind in the world. In 2000 she established the NC State Compost Learning Lab, with 26 kinds of composting and vermicomposting bins and space for hands-on teaching. So, she has full credentials to tell us about how to produce vermicast for profit or manage waste produced on farms and gardens, in municipalities, industries and institutions.

A tour of the Worm Barn at the NC State Compost Learning Lab

First, to clarify the terminology: vermiculture is the raising of worms for bait or animal feed or for selling to other worm farmers; vermicomposting is the conversion of organic wastes into worm castings (vermicast), a nutrient-rich, microbially active soil amendment or growth medium for young plants. The word vermicompost is sometimes used to refer to a mixture of castings, uneaten bedding and feedstock (organic material). To avoid confusion between compost (a thermophilic aerobic process) and vermicompost (a warm-not-hot mesophilic process involving the material passing through earthworms), Rhonda uses the word vermicast.

Nowadays the main reason for worm farming is to process organic wastes and use the vermicast to grow stronger, more nutrient-dense food crops or marijuana. It is possible to keep costs low, even fairly large-scale, by manufacturing your own worm bins and by screening the vermicast manually, or with a small motorized sifter. Additional income can come from selling vermicast tea and teaching classes.

Vermicast sells at a much higher price than regular compost, 7-60 times more! The microbial populations in vermicast are much larger and more diverse than those in thermophilic compost. Seeds germinate more quickly in vermicast-amended soil, the seedlings grow faster, the root mass is much bigger, leading to earlier, bigger yields. Strangely, and proven scientifically, all these improvements are independent of the nutrients available to the plants. The turnip photo is astounding. Crops with vermicast-amended soil have greater resistance to insect pests, because the vermicast adds phenolic compounds to the plants, making them distasteful to bugs (but apparently not to humans!). Plant parasitic nematodes (such as the root knot nematode Meloidogyne hapla) can also be suppressed.

Photo https://medium.com/compost-turner-fully-hydraulic-composting-machine/what-is-vermicomposting-b83428572c6c

The earthworm biology chapter is fascinating. Rhonda opens by saying “I don’t want to put you to sleep with a long-winded discussion of the anatomy and physiology of earthworms.” No danger of that. This is concise, technical and yet easy reading. Who knew there are species of earthworms that reach lengths of 3ft (91 cm), 4ft (1.2 m), 4.5ft (1.4 m), 6ft (1.8 m), 13ft (4 m) and an eye-watering 22ft (6.7 m). Only the smallest two of those are in the US, and no, not in Virginia! Some earthworms don’t live underground in the soil – the epigeic group live in the leaf litter. Seven species of worms are suitable for vermicomposting, and Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler, is by far the most widely used.

To start a worm bin, buy at least 1lb (0.5 kg) of these worms per square foot (0.09 m2) of surface area. That’s much denser than I imagined. And don’t go to the bait shop, because you’d have to buy dozens of packages for every pound of worms, throw out all the containers, and pay $122-$225. From a reputable worm grower you will pay $20-50 per pound, perhaps with added shipping.

Rhonda walks us through all the necessary steps of preparing to farm worms. Study the state and local regulations, and the safety issues, and make a business plan before buying worms, except perhaps for a small pilot scheme. Don’t expand before you know how you will make it work. Production and marketing are equally vital. Will your state regard this as a composting process (lots of regulations) or a livestock farming enterprise? Plan to avoid the problems and have contingency plans in case they happen anyway.

Photo NC State https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/vermicomposting-for-business-farms-institutions-municipalities/

In designing your physical set-up, there are options from small outdoor pits or bins to continuous flow-through bins. Buy or build your own, after studying the pros and cons. Look for suitable readymade containers at a good price, such as Macrobins and IBC totes used for vegetable and other storage and transport. Source your feedstocks and decide if it would be best to pre-compost them before offering to your worms – often wise if dealing with large deliveries of food waste, to reduce volume and pest problems. This book helps with information on the space you’ll need for all stages of the process. Plan ahead. Imagine yourself 10, 20 years older when delivering feedstock, monitoring your livestock and emptying your bins. Don’t build things too wide, tall or heavy. Leave access space all around your bins (unless very narrow). Imagine more climate change.

Don’t geek out too much on the equipment though – remember you are farming livestock and will need to prioritize learning their ways. You need a 6″ (15 cm) layer of moist bedding, a layer of worms at a sufficient density for the container, a thin 1-1.5″ (2.5-3.8 cm) layer of feedstock and a covering layer, so the worms can eat without being exposed to the light. Enough air and water, light to prevent them crawling away. Wait till they’ve eaten all you’ve provided before adding more food, or you will get fruit flies, gnats, flies, ants etc. Rhonda advises on various feedstocks. Check at least once a day, to make sure your worms are healthy, thriving and mot crawling out of your bin. As needed each day, water the top of the bin, using a mist or light fine spray.

Worm farming can fit with other types of farming with good results. Livestock manure (except poultry manure) is a good feedstock for worms. You can experiment with adding some worms to a composting toilet. Vegetable, fruit and flower crops can provide crop residues; food processing has what would otherwise be waste; shredded paper is good (the ink on printed paper is not toxic nowadays, but avoid glossy paper and fancy papers with metallic additions).

A worm bin is not a trash disposal – you need to find a recipe that combines your ingredients in the right proportions to provide a balance of nutrients. The ideal starting ratio is 25 carbon:1 nitrogen, and a helpful list is in the book. You can use an online compost calculator to roughly determine an appropriate mix. Pre-composting is a good way to turn your materials into a homogenous substance the worms will thrive on. This avoids the problem described by Rhonda as “the worms beeline for the melons and stay away from the onions.” Rhonda provides ten reasons for pre-composting.

Photo http://lessismore.org/materials/75-vermicomposting/

Earthworm husbandry is central to worm farming. Inspect daily with eyes and nose, and squeeze a handful of bedding to test for moisture. Never pour water directly into the bin “even if you have seen people do it on YouTube!” as Rhonda cautions. Once a week count population samples at 4″ (10 cm) deep. Take 6″ (15 cm) squares, count and record worm numbers and make sure numbers don’t go down. Keep your worms in a temperature range of 60-80F (16-27C), cooling, insulating or heating as needed. Adding extra feed will help raise the temperature in cold weather, but don’t overdo it. Add cow patties and see if your worms choose to congregate there. Add an insulating layer and watch out for other animals (“with sharp teeth!”) sheltering there. Be aware that too much cooked food can attract different types of flies.

 

Six worm bins.
Photo NCSU
https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/earthworms-and-worm-bins/

The instructions for harvesting worms, vermicompost or both are very practical. For small-scale enterprises with limited budgets there is the table harvesting method – spreading the top layer of the bin material on a table and hand-sorting worms, vermicompost and unconsumed food. This is made more efficient by using bright lights to cause the worms to cluster in the middle of the pile, avoiding the light. Another method, if you only want the worms, is to add fresh feed in a wide mesh tray on the top of the bed, after fasting the worms for a week. When the worms gather in the tray, scoop them up.

To harvest vermicompost, you can make screening boxes. Sort the finest vermicompost for sale or use on the farm, and return the coarser material and the worm cocoons to the bin. Return the worms to the bed or sell them. A way to harvest the vermiculture but not the worms is sideways separation. Set up a new bedding and feeding area adjacent to the old one, after not feeding the worms for a week or so. They will gradually move sideways into the better accommodation and you can harvest the vermicast from the old area. Continuous flow-through bins allow vermiculture harvest without disturbing the worms. This involves grates in the bottom of the bin and a way of scraping the vermicompost across the grate. This was the only place in the book where I do not understand the description, and there was no helpful diagram or photo. Fortunately a description later cleared up the mystery.

There is a good photo of a homemade trommel (cylindrical screen) involving bicycle rims. Worm farmers are definitely a hands-on crowd! Packaging and shipping can involve egg trays cut to size on a band saw, and breathable bags sewn from rolls of rowcover.

Vermicast can be tested using compost-testing criteria, and the book tells you the target values for pH and various elements and also the acceptable pathogen limits. There’s also a list of 13 bragging points which you can include on your label if selling your products. There is also a warning about what not to claim on you labels!

Rhonda Sherman

The last chapter of the book consists of 27 diverse global case studies, and makes inspiring and confidence-building reading. So many ideas you could use for your own worm farm! Rhonda points out that she herself is operating from a small research station, with a small staff. Sites profiled include the Len Foote Hike Inn (Georgia), a state park facility where you do indeed need to hike in. The facility was built in 1998 to be sustainable. The worm bins are fed guest meal scraps, shredded office paper, cardboard, discarded natural fiber clothes and even cotton mopheads! The Evergreen State College collaborates with Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Washington to recycle their food waste. The prisoners designed and built the equipment, saving the taxpayers $2000 per year and reducing the facility’s water consumption by 25%. The vermicompost is used in the prisoners’ garden to grow vegetables for the facility.

The Medical University of South Carolina reduced food waste with worms and has recorded the data in good academic fashion, providing everyone with some precise information on quantities, labor requirements, expenditure and productivity. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Ohio) began vermicomposting when they acquired a bin and a quarter-million earthworms from another air force base where they were no longer welcome. With one hour of labor per day, the staff were able to save $25/day hauling waste food and provide vermicompost for the base golf course (hey, better than chemical fertilizer!)

Photo
https://www.tagawagardens.com/blog/want-to-turn-kitchen-garbage-into-gardening-gold-vermicomposting-is-for-you/

Various school projects are acclaimed for educating children and getting them onboard with reducing landfill lunch components by 85%, in one case. After lunch, the SCRAP carts (Separate, Compost, Reduce and Protect) carts (operated by students, staff and custodians) are wheeled around to collect up whatever has not been eaten.

The Green Organic Agricultural Production Company in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a woman-owned business with the goal of composting and vermicomposting 20% of Kabul’s organic waste, and train other women in the process. They use open-air beds built of concrete blocks, producing 100 tons of vermicompost annually.

The diversity of the farms profiled is a real help in showing the process as manageable on various scales, in various climates and with varying degrees of funding and mechanization. Perhaps the widest range is the feedstocks: everything from manures and vegetable wastes to agave bagasse at a tequila production plant, waste from a palm oil extractor plant. And scales up to 200,000 tons per day (maybe bigger). Reading these profiles will also steer you away from repeating mistakes already made by others, such as the large continuous flow-through bin made of wood, that fell apart under the strain, dumping worms and vermicompost on a concrete floor in the middle of winter in Michigan.

Corrugated cardboard is a surprising source of nitrogen – it’s in the glue. As paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter each time until they are too short to be useful for recycling (this is why egg boxes and apple trays are not recyclable. Worm farming is the perfect use for these products, and worms are partial to paper sludge.

There are five pages of Resources, nine pages of Bibliography and a twelve page Index. That’s an impressive index. Twin Oaks runs an indexing business, and I have written two books myself, so I have a fine appreciation of indexes!

Our Organic Integrated Pest Management

French Marigolds and sesame to combat root knot nematodes in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Organic Integrated Pest Management involves tackling pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions chosen to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops.

Steps:

  1. Cultivate a good environment for your crops: healthy soil, sufficient space, nutrients and water, suitable temperature, soil pH. Practice crop rotation to reduce the chances of pests and diseases carrying over from one crop to the next. Clear old crops promptly, so they don’t act as a breeding ground for the pest. Choose suitable varieties that resist the pests you most expect.
  2. Cover or protect the plants physically from the pests (mulches to stop soil-dwelling pests moving up into your crops, netting, rowcover, planting diverse crops, and even trap crops)
Young cucumber plant under insect netting in June.
Photo Pam Dawling
  1. Provide habitat for natural enemies and other beneficial insects
  2. Monitor crops regularly at least once a week and identify any pests you see.
  3. Introduce natural enemies of the pest (bacteria, fungi, insect predators or parasites)
  4. Hand pick (or trap) and kill the pests if the pest population is above the action threshold. Many fruit and root crop plants can take 30% defoliation before any loss of yield. Where the crop is the foliage, this may be too much!
  5. Use biological controls (often derived from natural enemies) if the damage is still economically significant after trying the earlier steps in the process.

I recommend the ATTRA online publication Organic Integrated Pest Management.

Each of the 22 pages is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info.

Our motion sensor sprinkler and the outer layer of our fence around the sweet potato patch at the end of May. The inner fence was installed later.
Photo Pam Dawling

One of our biggest garden pests is the deer, which are especially fond of sweet potatoes. We use motion-sensor water sprayers initially or in years when the deer pressure is low. For worse years we install an electric fence with a solar-powered charger.  Last year our electric fence didn’t keep the deer out, so this year we have a double layered fence to make sure.

Broccoli bed with alyssum to attract aphid predators.
Photo Pam Dawling

At the other end of the size scale are aphids.  We plant sweet alyssum in our beds of broccoli and cabbage to attract insects that will eat aphids. We sow about 200 plugs for 1500 row feet (450 m) of brassicas planted as two rows in a bed, and pop one alyssum plug in the bed centers every  4ft of bed or about one alyssum per  4 plants. We transplant these the same day that we replace any casualty broccoli and cabbage plants.

Nasturtiums planted in with squash to deter pests. Does it work?
Photo Pam Dawling

We transplant some bush nasturtiums in with our first plantings of cucumber and summer squash. They are said to repel some cucurbit pests such as squash bugs., but I can’t vouch for that. Radishes in cucumber or squash rows are said to repel cucumber beetles and squash bugs. I haven’t tried that. There are a lot of companion planting ideas out there, but most have no scientific evidence for effectiveness.

An insectary circle in early June. The flowers will attract beneficial insects.
Photo Pam Dawling

In late May or early June, we transplant some flowers in our garden to attract pollinators and pest predators. We use circles cut from plastic buckets to surround these clusters of flowers so that inexperienced helpers don’t pull them out as weeds.  We use a combination of sunflowers, dill, borage, cosmos, calendula, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), zinnias.

Sunflower bee and bug.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We also sow sunflowers in our bean beds at each succession. These attract birds and pollinators, while also acting as landmarks for our harvest progress.

In our hoophouse we have been tackling nematodes for several years. This year we have planted the nematode areas in French marigolds and sesame (apparently particularly good in deterring root knot nematodes, the type we have.) Some other nematode areas have been planted with Iron and Clay cowpeas. Unfortunately we now have an aphid infestation on the cowpeas! We are trying blasting the aphids off the plants with a strong stream of water from a hose. Later in the summer we will solarize some of the nematode areas.

We planted Iron and Clay cowpeas to deter nematodes, but got aphids!
Photo Pam Dawling
Flowering sesame in our hoophouse, surrounded by French marigolds. We hope they will fight the root knot nematodes.
Photo Pam Dawling

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.

Garlic scapes, yellow spinach, and listen-while-you-work

 

Garlic scape harvest. Photo Wren Vile

The seasons are changing, and I notice fewer people are searching my website for Winter-kill temperatures and more are searching for garlic scapes, and (sadly) sprouting green potatoes!

We’ve been harvesting scapes from our hardneck garlic for over a week now and have been tackling the sequence of tasks that scapes act as a prompt for:

  1. Weed the hay-mulched broccoli and cabbage beds next to the garlic
  2. Weed the garlic
  3. Carefully lift out the hay-mulch-and-weeds combo from the garlic beds, into wheelbarrows
  4. Take it to the broccoli and cabbage beds and use it to top up the mulch there.

This gives the garlic good airflow and helps it dry down (our scapes arrive 3 weeks before we need to harvest). I notice it’s earlier this year. We may be harvesting at the end of May, rather than in the first week of June. We need to clean and prepare the barn where we hang the garlic to cure, and service the box fans we use to help that process (our climate is too humid to cure alliums without fans). For a lot more about garlic throughout the year, see the “alliums” category of posts.

What causes spinach leaves to turn yellow?

A bed of healthy green Reflect spinach on May 3
Photo Pam Dawling
A bed of sad yellow Reflect spinach only 10 ft away.
Photo Pam Dawling

On a less happy topic, we have been puzzling over the difference between one bed of spinach (green) and another about 10 ft away (yellow)

We had two beds of transplanted Reflect spinach from the same planting that came out very differently this spring. One developed yellow older leaves, the other stayed green. Seizing an opportunity, we transplanted the troubled one (30W) directly after tilling, on 3/2, without allowing the turned-under weeds to decompose. We did spread compost before tilling. Although initially healthy, later the older leaves developed all-over yellowing (not just between the veins). The other bed (27W), transplanted 3/18, about 10 feet away, has stayed healthy and green, up until May 14. We’ve lost track of when it was tilled relative to planting. Or, because we had such wet weather, we might have broadforked rather than tilled. Both beds now have pointy leaves and are getting ready to bolt. No difference in that. Our other beds of spring spinach, transplanted 3/5 and 3/13 are between the two mentioned in color. Is the problem entirely to do with the decomposing weeds (and the micro-organisms they are feeding) tying up the nitrogen? It looks like that.

In an effort to save the yellow spinach, 30W was weeded around 5/2 and the bed was sprayed in the evening 5/3 with seaweed extract. It rained 0.1″ the night of 5/4 and again 5/5, then no more rain before the second set of photos 5/9 – could the seaweed have washed off before it could be absorbed? We did not add a spreader/sticker (soap) to the seaweed spray. There might have been overhead irrigation, which could have washed it off. We don’t remember when it was irrigated relative to the seaweed spraying.

We also don’t know if there were differences in transplanting techniques between the beds, but as both beds were transplanted by several people working together, we can probably rule this out.

The bed of green spinach on May 9 – note how the leaves are pointy – the spinach is preparing to bolt.
Photo Pam Dawling
In 2016 both beds had spring spinach (three year rotation).

30W (yellow) then had buckwheat, compost and late squash 7/18/16, followed by winter wheat.

In 2017 it had compost, tomatoes 5/2 and winter wheat.

In 2018 it had buckwheat and soy, compost and late bush beans 8/3, leaving weeds over winter.

Total about 14 months food crops.

27W (green) had buckwheat and soy followed by oats in August 2016.

In 2017 it had compost, spring turnips, buckwheat and soy, compost and lettuce in August, followed by weeds over the winter.

In 2018 it had compost, carrots 3/27, compost, turnips 8/6 and weeds over the winter.

Total about 11 months of food crops.

The yellow spinach (no greener) on May 9.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Possible causes of yellow spinach leaves include poor drainage, soil compaction, damaged roots/poor root growth, high soil pH, too much or too little water, too low or too high a temperature, or perhaps cold temperatures followed abruptly by very warm temperatures, 80°F or greater; nutrient deficiencies or disease. In our case, the beds are close together, receiving identical weather. Perhaps 30W is a bit drier.
  • Nutrient deficiencies may occur due to insufficient amount in the soil or because the nutrients are unavailable due to high soil pH, or nutrients may not be absorbed due to injured roots or poor root growth. Our roots grew OK, we don’t tend towards alkaline soil
  • The most common nutrient problem associated with chlorosis is lack of iron, but yellowing may also be caused by manganese, magnesium, boron, zinc, or nitrogen deficiencies.
  • Iron deficiency starts on young leaves and may later work towards the older leaves (which initially had enough iron, as a transplant). Can occur in water-logged soil. The veins can remain green. Not the problem we have – our older leaves are yellower.
  • Deficiencies in manganese, zinc or nitrogen develop on older leaves first and then progress upward.
  • Within older leaves, magnesium is transported from the leaf’s interstitial areas to the veins, resulting in yellowing of the areas between leaf veins. This creates a marbled appearance, a typical symptom of magnesium deficiency. Our leaves were yellow all over.
  • Nitrogen deficiency. Overall yellowing (including veins). The lower, older leaves appear yellow first as the plant moves the available nitrogen to the more important newer leaves. Spinach is sensitive to inadequate nitrogen. Our main suspect.
  • Boron deficiency also yellows the leaves and stunts spinach plants. We do tend to run short of boron, and my approach was to add boron before brassicas. We haven’t added any for several years and the only brassicas in these beds were turnips in 27W in spring 2017 and fall 2018. Did we add boron in 2016/2017?
  • Spinach is a heavy feeder. Feed with compost tea, manure tea, or fish emulsion when plants have four true leaves. Side dress with compost tea every 10 to 15 days. Mix 1 tablespoon of fish emulsion and 2 tablespoons of kelp extract per gallon of water; use about one cup per one-foot of row on a weekly basis until plants are about 4″ (10 cm) tall; then feed two more times before harvest. Add mature compost to planting beds twice each year.
  • Fusarium wilt or fusarium yellows (also called spinach yellows) is a fungal disease which infects plant vascular tissues. Fungal spores live in the soil and can be carried by cucumber beetles. We certainly have lots of striped cucumber beetles! But these plants did not wilt. See the photos here:
  • Harvest to Table is a great website with lots of reliable growing information.
  • Identifying nutrient deficiency in plants
  • Guide to Symptoms of Plant Nutrient Deficiencies
Listen While You Work

Harold Thornbro of The Small Town Homestead interviewed me about hoophouses and you can listen to the interview here. It’s about 50 minutes.

I also gave an interview for the Yale Climate Connections

This one is short (1 min 30 sec) and more about Twin Oaks Community than farming in particular.Play it directly above, or See the webpage here

There is also a link to a longer CNN story about Twin Oaks

Cooking Greens in May

Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

My recent blogpost Hoophouse Greens Clearance is a good lead-in to this topic. This is the first of a planned monthly series of posts about seasonal cooking greens. I have been justly criticized for not reminding readers that these dates are for our location in central Virginia. Those living in the rest of the world can choose later or earlier dates as appropriate. Hopefully you will be able to set a pattern, where you add or subtract a certain number of weeks. For example if you are in a colder area, you will generally plant later between December and June and plant earlier after that, to fit the length of daylight and the temperature.

Cooking Greens to Plant in Central Virginia in May

Very early May is our last chance to finish transplanting gap fillers to replace casualties in spring broccoli and cabbage. It’s too late for us to transplant any other cooking greens in May (except Swiss chard and special heat tolerant crops), as the weather is already heating up and brassicas will bolt.

We plant our chard out around April 29–May 6, at 3–4 weeks of age. We transplant into beds already mulched with rolled out bales of spoiled hay, making “nests” through the hay down to soil level, at 12″ (30 cm) spacing. The plants will grow large, so we put only two rows in a 4′ (120 cm) bed with 1′ (30–cm) paths. The mulch controls weeds and keeps the soil cooler and damper through the summer.

Spinach beet, also known as perpetual spinach, is by far the closest to real spinach in appearance and flavor. It is a kind of chard with narrow green stems and plentiful glossy green leaves, which are generally smaller than other chard leaves. It is a trouble-free, adaptable crop, and deserves to be much better known.

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa, Tetragonia tetragonioides) is salt tolerant and will even grow in sand. It is a sprawling bushy plant with small, fleshy, triangular leaves. Thin to at least six inches (15 cm) apart. It is very slow to germinate and needs hot weather to really get going. Regular trimming encourages lush growth. Scissors can be used to harvest the shoot tips. If it seeds, you’ll get lots of plants the following year. The flavor is very mild — I rate this one as not particularly like spinach.

Malabar Spinach, a summer green leafy crop.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Malabar spinach (Basella alba, Basella rubra) can be sown in early May. It’s a vining plant with crinkled heart-shaped leaves on green or red vines. A tropical plant from Asia and Africa, it needs tall trellising and will reward you with its attractive appearance. Germination can be erratic, so don’t give up too soon. Soaking the seed in warm water before sowing may help.

Thin to at least 6″ (15 cm) apart and, to promote a more branched plant, pinch out the central shoot after the second set of leaves. It is little troubled by pests and will produce an abundance of moderately small leaves, looking like real spinach, two months from sowing. Individual leaves may be harvested as needed. The taste is slightly seaweedy (it’s also known as “land kelp”) and the texture is somewhat mucilaginous in the way that okra is. It can be eaten raw if you like the chewy texture.

Melokhia (Corchorus olitorius) is an Arabic summer cooking green which grows quickly to a height of three feet (one meter) in hot weather. Only the small leaves are cooked and eaten. Jute fiber is extracted from the mature plants. Seed is available from Sandhill Preservation.

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

Bolting mustard greens on May 3.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoor Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

As the outdoor cooking greens prepare to bolt, we clear the beds of spinach, senposai, mustard greens, collards and kale, probably in that order. Over-wintered spinach bolts sooner than spring-planted spinach.

Daylight length of more than 14 hours triggers bolting in spinach. All of us, wherever we are, have 12 hours of daylight at the spring equinox and the fall equinox, and less than that from fall to spring. So, provided temperatures are in the right range, we have over 6 months of suitable spinach growing conditions. Hot weather will accelerate bolting once the daylight trigger has been reached, as will overcrowding (with other spinach or with weeds) and under-watering. The exact temperature that triggers bolting varies between varieties. Here we reach 14 hours of daylight on May 8, and spinach is definitely a lost cause after that date.

Broccoli, cabbage and chard harvests start here this month. Broccoli is generally available 5/20 – 6/30; cabbage 5/25 – 7/15, with some put into storage. Our outdoor chard is ready from 5/25 into the winter. We could have chard earlier, but we prefer spinach and kale while we can have those in spring.

Beet greens and turnip greens can be harvested all month outdoors. This fits in well with thinning the plants out to 3″ (7.5 cm) or more apart.

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

Hoophouse Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

As I said in my Hoophouse Greens Clearance post, the indoor greens have to concede space to the tender warm weather plants. Bulls Blood Beet Greens will be bolting, as will the chard, frilly mustards and spinach. Clear them away, and look outside instead!

Other Tasks with Cooking Greens here in May

In mid-May, we weed our broccoli, having packed away the rowcovers, or moved them on to more tender plants. I always prefer moving rowcovers and netting direct from one bed to another, rather than rolling tightly and storing it, just to unpack it again soon after!

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

After weeding the broccoli and cabbage beds, which in our rotation are right beside the over-wintered garlic, in the same plot, we weed the garlic. Then we gather up the mulch and weeds and move them from the garlic to the weeded brassica beds. This achieves three things:

  1. We are extra motivated and get all the broccoli and cabbage beds and garlic weeded in a timely way.
  2. We leave bare soil around the garlic which improves airflow and helps the garlic dry down ready for harvest at the beginning of June.
  3. The brassica beds receive a topping up of mulch, which helps smother weeds and keeps the brassica plants cooler as we go into hotter weather. This will extend the harvest period and reduce the likelihood of the broccoli becoming bitter.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for May in Central Virginia: Planning Fall Brassicas

At Twin Oaks we need to start sowing our fall brassicas (especially the broccoli and cabbage) in the middle of June. Rather than have to attend to flats of starts in the greenhouse, we use outdoor nursery seed beds and do bare-root transplanting.

To determine when to sow for fall plantings, start with your average first frost date, 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.

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). This means sowing 36 seeds for 10 plants that will be grown on 18″ (46 cm) spacing. And we do that twice (72 seeds for 10 plants!), two sowings a week apart, to ensure we have enough plants of the right size.

Fall brassica nursery seedbed with insect netting.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We consult our maps and see how much space we have for fall broccoli and cabbage, how many raised beds of Asian greens and collards we want, and so on. (We direct sow kale in raised beds in early August). We will, of course, have initially planned this in the winter, before ordering seeds, but sometimes plans change!) Once we have decided how many plants of each variety and each crop we want, we can plan our seed sowing. We make a spreadsheet of what we need to sow each week, and maps of the seed beds. Our sowings are complex, so we make sure to label everything clearly. Here are our instructions:

  1. On the same day of each week, sow, label, water, hoop and ProtekNet the “Feet Plan” for that week.  Allow 3 hours.  Make a map.
  2. Check and record the germination of the previous two weeks’ sowings. (Perfect = one plant per inch)
  3.  In a fresh row, sow top-ups for varieties with a germination less than 80%. Enter the info in the column for the current week. Example: If Arcadia week 2 germination = 12′ (at 1/inch) visible in week 4, sow 10′ in the week 4 bed to make up to the 22′ needed, and write 10′ in the Arcadia row in the week 4 column. ( There are no sowings in weeks 5-8 except resows and kale beds.).
  4. Transplant at 3-4 weeks old:

In Week 4 (7/8-7/14): Transplant week 1 cabbage.

In Week 5 (7/15-7/21): Transplant week 2 cabbage, broccoli, , any  week 2 resows.

In Week 6 (7/22-7/28): Transplant week 3 cabbage, broccoli, senposai, Yukina Savoy; and any week 3 resows.

In Week 7 (7/29-8/4): Transplant week 4 senposai, Yukina Savoy, collards and resows.   Also fill gaps in week 4 transplantings (= week 1 sowings)

In Weeks 8 & 9 (8/5-8/19): Transplant week 5 collards anything you didn’t keep up with, and replacements in weeks 5 and 6 transplantings (weeks 2 & 3 sowings)

Fall broccoli rows.
Photo Kati Falger

Below you can see our seedbed maps, with four rows per bed, and handy 5 ft measurements.

Next we make a fall brassica transplanting map, or field map, to show where we intend the various varieties to grow. I’ll tell you more about that in June.