Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing, Harvest and Storage

 

China Rose Winter Radish.
Photo Seed Savers Exchange

You can find a wealth of information on my website about growing, harvesting and storing winter vegetables. There are many links here in this post (all should open in a new tab, so you won’t go down a rabbit hole), and you can also use the search box in the upper right to enter whatever vegetable you are wondering about, and “grow” “harvest” or “store”, Remember I also have several annual series of posts, on Asian greens, root vegetables, workhorse crops, alliums, cooking greens, and lettuce. Just don’t look for “Storage lettuce” until April 1st.

I’ve also included some good blogs that I sometimes consult.

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Growing

Season extension into cold weather

Prepare your garden for colder weather: plant winter crops if there is still time, use rowcover on hoops to protect crops from wind and cold weather, plant up every little bit of space in your greenhouse or hoophouse.

See my posts

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo wren Vile

And here’s a post by Shannon Cowan, the blog editor at Eartheasy.com:

Winter Gardening: Best Crops to Extend Your Harvest

Shannon suggests using a variety of strategies. “Plant some vegetables that will mature quickly, others that will hold well in your garden beds, and still others that will overwinter and begin growing again when the days lengthen.”

This is also my approach. See my posts

Fall-grown senposai.
Photo Pam Dawling

Good late season vegetables: salad greens, Swiss chard, beans, peas (in climates milder than 7), carrots, radishes, senposai, spinach, pak choy, cabbage and winter lettuces.

Good cold hardy vegetables: Plant in late summer and fall to harvest throughout the winter. These late-sown crops reach full maturity before seriously cold weather, and hold so you can harvest them when the rest of your crops have been eaten. They don’t usually grow much during the winter, but they do stay fresh. Grow enough to supply your needs without depending on any further growth. This category includes Asian greens, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, leeks, scallions, spinach, turnips and other root vegetables,

Good crop protection so you can grow some crops through the winter. If your winter temperatures routinely drop below 25 F (- 4 C), crops need protection, from simple rowcover to hoophouses or greenhouses. This improves the temperatures, but it’s hard to address the reduced amount of daylight or sunlight. The increased warmth, plus the protection from winds, can be enough for some, such as spinach, kale and lettuce, to make some growth whenever their temperature is greater than 40F (5C).

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

Good slow growing crops to harvest outdoors in late winter or early spring. In this category are crops that go into the winter less than fully grown. After the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, crops start growing again, making them usually ready for harvest very early, much earlier than any crops planted after the solstice. They don’t usually need winter protection and include beets, some types of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, onions, garlic, garlic scallions, spinach, kale and collards.

See my post Winter radishes, planting garlic.

Good crops to grow in hoophouses include arugula, beets, chard, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, lettuce, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, mustards, pak choy, parsley, radishes, spinach, tatsoi, Tokyo bekana, turnips and Yukina Savoy

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

See my posts

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Harvest

See my posts

Harvested Purple Top Milan and White Egg turnips.
Photo Pam Dawling

Here are some links to a couple of good sources for more harvest information:

Piedmont Master Gardeners Garden Shed Newsletter

Guidelines for Harvesting Vegetables by Pat Chadwick

A list of seven basic principles of harvesting, followed by a crop-by-crop list of almost 50 individual crops and a resource list of 18 publications (focused on the mid-Atlantic and Southeast)

Roxbury Farm Harvest Manual (Roxbury Agriculture Institute at Philia Farm)

October Tips from Harvest to Table, by Steve Albert covers all climate zones and comes complete with a USDA Hardiness Zone Map

Links to other posts by Steve Albert

  1. Fall and Winter Vegetable Storage

I already have posts on root cellar potato storage, onion storage (alliums for August), Garlic storage, Storage vegetables slide show, Root Crops April, Feb, Jan, Dec, Nov.

See my posts

Sweet potatoes in storage. An ideal crop for winter meals, as they store at room temperature for a long time, maybe seven or eight months. Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops for October

 

The crew working on the sweet potato harvest.
Photo McCune Porter

This is another episode in my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops. These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions. We’re several months into this series, so here’s the complete list: asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash.

I hope to help you become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as you deal with another strange year. Maybe you are not at home as much as last year, or maybe your helpers have gone back to school, but you deeply appreciate sustainably grown food.  You still want to garden, even with less time at home. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as September.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in October

In October in central Virginia we only have enough remaining good growing conditions outdoors to plant 3 of our 14 Workhorse crops – we can still transplant chard, collards and kale. A big step down from last month’s 8. We could also plant some garlic scallions (the soil is still too warm for us to plant garlic, but if you are in a colder zone than us, you’ll want to see this post.)

In October here, outdoor gardening is more focused on harvesting and less on planting. In contrast, October is our busiest planting month in the hoophouse! In September we direct sowed our first hoophouse bed, and sowed other crops in an outdoor nursery seedbed. Two to four weeks later, in October, we transplant them in the hoophouse. Workhorse crops getting transplanted into our hoophouse in October include Red and White Russian Kales, Bright Lights chard, and Napa Chinese cabbage. This year we are trying some carrots (actually we sowed those in September). We have plenty of other crops that don’t qualify as workhorses too!

Chard:

Swiss chard can be sown outdoors here in September, and transplanted early in October for an early winter harvest, with the option of overwintering under rowcover to provide harvests during the winter. We could direct sow chard in September and protect it for the winter, for a late winter and early spring harvest. Remember that red chard is more cold-hardy than the multi-colored types, and green chards tend to be even more hardy.

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

For hoophouse winter harvest, we sow Bright Lights chard in our nursery seedbed September 15 and transplant it October 16. We love the beauty of the multi-colored chard mixes, both growing and after harvest, and we have found that the hoophouse protects the crop well enough that it does not die, even without inner rowcover (unless the outdoor temperature is forecast to be below 8°F (-13°C).

Collards

This is rather late for us to transplant collards outdoors, but if we need to, and we have some good thick rowcover, we’ll do it. The extra warmth of the rowcover will help it make up for lost time.

Kale

Our last date for sowing Vates kale outdoors is 10/30. We can still transplant August-sown kale to fill gaps if we need to – see August’s post. Because kale makes some growth whenever the temperature is above about 40°F (5°C), it is a valuable winter crop. Our sunnier winter days are often warm enough for kale (and spinach!) to make some growth. We will sow more kale in late January, to give us a spring crop.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse we grow both the White Russian and the slightly smaller Red Russian kale. See the explanation about the merits of Oleracea and Napus kales. We make sure to transplant the shorter red kale on the south side of the bed, so it gets adequate light, with the white kale on the north. You may have noticed that red and purple-leaved vegetables grow slower and tend to be smaller than their green cousins. This is because they have less green! Green leaves are needed for photosynthesis, which enables plants to grow. Green plants also contain the reds and purples, but the green dominates. This is similar to the conundrum of red and orange fall leaves – where do those colors come from? They are there all along, but are masked by the green. In preparation for leaf fall, the trees absorb all the green chlorophyll, leaving the fall colors visible.

White Russian kale (napus type) gives us good yields in our hoophouse in winter.
Photo Pam Dawling

Garlic scallions

Garlic scallions are immature garlic plants, mostly leaves, pulled up before they make bulbs. They are the garlic equivalent of onion scallions (bunching onions, spring onions, escallions). Great for omelets, stir-fries, pesto, soups, and many other dishes.

We plant ours using the culled tiny cloves from the bulbs we save for outdoor garlic planting in early November. Tiny cloves will never produce big bulbs, so growing garlic scallions makes very good use of them! Planting garlic scallions is simplicity itself! Plant the small cloves close together in closely-spaced furrows, simply dropping the cloves in almost shoulder to shoulder, any way up that they fall. Close the furrow and mulch over the top with spoiled hay or straw.

You could plant these next to your main garlic patch, or in a part of the garden that’s easily accessible for harvest in spring. We plant our small cloves for scallions at one edge of the garden, and as we harvest, we use the weed-free area revealed to sow the lettuce seedlings for that week.

If you want to have Garlic Scallions to eat or sell in early spring, when new fresh vegetables are in short supply, and homesteaders may be running out of stored bulb onions, see my post Alliums for March. With a last frost date of 20–30 April, we harvest garlic scallions March 10 to April 30 in central Virginia, or even into May, if our supply lasts out, and we don’t need the space for something else. Harvesting is simple, although depending on your soil, you may need to loosen the plants with a fork rather than just pulling. Trim the roots, rinse, bundle, set in a small bucket with a little water, and you’re done!

A colorful salad of rainbow chard, onion scallions and garlic scallions.
Photo (and salad) by Bridget Aleshire.

Rather than dig up whole garlic scallion plants, some people cut the greens at 10″ (25 cm) tall and bunch them, allowing cuts to be made every two or three weeks. We tried this, but prefer to simply lift the whole plant once it reaches about 7″–8″ (18–20 cm). The leaves keep in better condition if still attached to the clove. Scallions can be sold in small bunches of three to six depending on size. A little goes a long way! If you do have more than you can sell in the spring, you could chop and dry them, or make pesto for sale later in the year.

You can plant garlic scallions at other times of year, if you have planting material. See Plant garlic scallions from softneck varieties (Alliums for February). If you plant in a hoophouse, more of the year opens up as a planting season. You can plant whole bulbs (the small cull ones you can’t sell, or don’t want to peel) and grow your garlic scallions already in a clump, rather than in rows of plants.

Some growers find they make more money from garlic scallions than from bulb garlic, partly because they don’t have the costs of curing and drying the bulbs! I encourage you to experiment with planting a few cloves at different times of year and record your results. Because you do not need to work with the right times for bulbing and drying down, all sorts of dates are possible!

Napa Chinese cabbage

Maybe you think I’m stretching things to classify Napa Chinese cabbage as a workhorse, but in my defense, I’ll say firstly that success in farming involves creativity and flexibility, and secondly that the Asian greens as a category are genuine Hoophouse Workhorses, as they grow so well in cool temperatures and short days. It is a cabbage! We sow Blues (53d from transplanting in mild weather) in a nursery seedbed on September 15 and transplant in the hoophouse October 2, at only two weeks old (very fast-growing in September). Because this is a heading vegetable, we leave it to grow to full size before harvesting. That will be in January. Many of the Asian Greens are harvested by the leaf, but Napa cabbage and pak choy are more often cut as a head.

Young Chinese cabbage transplants in our hoophouse.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in October

Eleven of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested in October (also true in September and August, but with substitutions!) No asparagus, no garlic, no more watermelon. Depending when the frost bites, there will be several fewer harvest options by the end of October.

Beans­ can be harvested until the weather gets too cold. We have covered the beds with rowcover to keep the plants warmer and growing faster. It’s true that pollinating insects can’t get at the flowers to perform their pollination services and make more beans, etc. But that doesn’t matter. We are more interested in fattening up the already pollinated beans! It’s also true that the yields are now way down, so we need to balance the benefits against the costs. Sometimes it is better to clear the crop (and its pests and diseases) and sow a cover crop.

Cabbage We harvest fall planted cabbage from September 25. We like Early Jersey Wakefield (45 days from transplanting) and Farao (64d) for fast-maturing cabbage; Melissa Savoy 85d; Early Flat Dutch 85d, Kaitlin 94d, for storage cabbage which are slower-growing. We have also liked huge Tribute 103d, Tendersweet (71d) for immediate fall use, and Wakamine (70d). Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C) . Double-check those days to maturity, I may have mixed days from transplanting with days from sowing.

Deadon cabbage
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

Carrots: If we sowed carrots in July, we will be harvesting in October.

Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. This year our chard did extremely well all summer and we are bored silly with it! We wish we had had stored cabbage, or some fall broccoli. We are relishing our fall senposai!

The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C).

Collards can be harvested in October.

Kale can be lightly harvested, if our early August sowings came through.

Potatoes: We can plant potatoes between mid-March and mid-June, leading to harvests in July-October. Protect potatoes from frost when harvesting. Read more about potato harvest here.

Our March-planted potatoes are in the root cellar. We’ve been eating those since July. We often plan to grow more in the June planting than the March planting, as root cellar storage over the summer is more challenging for us than having them in the ground.

Sweet Corn harvest is still going, thanks to our sixth sowing on July 16.

Sweet Potato harvest at Twin Oaks. Photo McCune Porter

Sweet potatoes need harvesting in October here, before it gets too cold. Usually sweet potatoes are harvested the week the first frost typically occurs. I wrote a lot about this topic here. I wrote all the harvesting details in another post, 10/12/20.

Contrary to myth, there is no toxin that moves from frozen leaves down into the roots. On the other hand, below 55°F (13°C), they’ll get chilling injury, which can ruin the crop. Roots without leaf cover after a frost are exposed to cold air temperatures, and have lost their method of pulling water up out of the soil. I remember one awful year when we left the sweet potatoes in the ground too late, hoping they’d fatten up a bit to make up for a poor growing season. Instead, the weather got cold and wet, and the sweet potatoes were rotting in the ground (it was November by then), and those that didn’t rot got chilling damage that prevented them ever softening in cooking. Sweet potatoes that stay hard are no fun to eat!

Tomatoes are winding down. If a frost threatens we will harvest them all, including the green ones. I prefer to store them on egg trays or in shallow crates, to gradually ripen indoors. But other people prefer fried green tomatoes. To my taste buds, it could be cardboard inside the batter! I don’t know the nutrient content of fried green tomatoes, but I feel certain ripened tomatoes without batter are more nutritious!

Winter Squash harvest continues once a week throughout September and October. Stored winter squash can provide meals all winter and also in early spring when other crops are scarce. We used to harvest as late as possible in the fall, but now we prioritize getting a good cover crop established, to replenish and protect the soil, so we have a Grand Finale harvest just before Halloween, when we harvest all the large interesting almost-ripe squash, and give them away for lantern carving. Some go to the chickens too. Harvest before the fruits get frosted, which is shown by a water-soaked appearance of the skin.

Zucchini and summer squash are now being harvested every other day. Our last sowing was August 5. We harvest beyond the first fall frost, by covering that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights. But once it gets cooler, they grow slower, and are not worth checking every day.

From storage: spring cabbage, carrots, garlic and potatoes, winter squash.

Food processing is still busy.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic

Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop
Photo by McCune Porter

Cover Crops

September 17 is our last chance to sow oats as a cover crop. If sown later they will not reach a good size before they are killed by cold temperatures. The soil would not be held together well. It would be better in those circumstances to mow the weeds and leave their roots to hold the soil together over the winter.

Oats winter-kill in most of zone 7 or colder, and survive in zone 8 or warmer. The end for oats is around 10°F (-12°C), depending on their size and the frequency of cold temperatures. Large oat plants winter-kill after 3 days at 20°F (-7°C) or colder. Young oats are tolerant to temperatures down to 12°F (-11°C), until the 5 leaf stage, as the growing point is still underground. Once the plant starts to make noticeable vertical growth and form nodes (22-36 days after planting, depending on variety, sowing date, and water), oats can die at 24°F (-4°C).

Dead oats leave an easy-to-work surface for early spring vegetables.

Clovers can be sown here throughout September, as can winter wheat and winter barley. Winter rye can be sown here in September (not August – it could head up!). Hardy Austrian winter peas can be sown in late September with rye.

For more details, see my post Planning Winter Cover Crops

Getting ready for frost and colder weather

 

Eat-All Greens rows with frost in December. October and part of November are still productive growing weeks in central Virginia. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Gardening does not end with the first frost! We will work our way from clearing the least hardy crops to those we can leave outside all winter. See our table Winter Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables. We will harvest or cover all the frost-tender crops, make a last harvest of rhubarb (the stems are hardy to 22°F (-6°C)) and hoop and rowcover the last outdoor lettuce. Our June-planted potatoes will be our last big harvest for the year.

We pull up the biggest Purple Top turnips and Cylindra beets, leaving the others a bit more room to size up before their killing temperature of 12°F (-11°C). Any day now, we’ll start harvesting fall leeks (King Richard and Lincoln), keeping the winter-hardy ones (Tadorna) for the winter.

DIY weather-forecasting

I recommend learning your local weather patterns by keeping records and watching what happens. Here’s what I’ve learned about ours:

Our mid-Atlantic climate is controlled by three weather systems,

  • mainly by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico,
  • the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer,
  • and recurrent waves of cold Canadian air in winter.
Beds after rain, Photo Wren Vile

Rain (statistically fairly evenly distributed throughout the year in our county) has slight peaks in January, February and March, and again in early June and August.

Some parts of our area can experience long periods of drought. September-November is the drier season but it’s also the hurricane season, so the net result is very variable.

We use Wunderground.com  but subtract 5F° from their forecast night lows for our nearest town, and mentally downgrade the chance of rain by 10%, as rain often passes us by as it scoots along the river valley north of us.

Blackberry leaf with frost.
Photo by Ezra Freeman

Our average first frost date is October 14. Actually from our own records it has averaged 10/20 (13 years of our own records). So it’s time to start thinking about frost. It’s good to be prepared.

According to Dave’s Garden in Louisa County where I live, the threshold of 36°F (2°C) has a 50% likelihood on Oct 3; the 32°F (0°C) threshold has a 50% likelihood by Oct 13 and the 28°F (-2°C) threshold is as likely as unlikely by Oct 27. The 90% chances occur by Oct 14, Oct 28 and Nov 12 respectively.

Another great website for local weather info is WeatherSpark.

Now that climate change is here, it pays to be ready for weather different from what we have experienced previously. Keeping records helps, as does having good thermometers for air and soil.

Four Ranges of Cold-Hardy Crops for Harvest at Various Stages of Winter

This simple model helps reduce confusion and set priorities

1. Crops to harvest before cold fall weather (32°-25°F) and store indoors:

Michihili Chinese Cabbage. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Chicory for chicons or heads; crosnes/Chinese artichokes, dry beans,  Chinese cabbage, peanuts, “White” Peruvian potatoes at 32°F (0°C) approximately, pumpkins, seed crops, sweet potatoes at 50°F (10°C), winter squash.

2. Crops to keep alive in the ground into winter to 22°-15°F (-6°C to -9°C), then harvest.

Bucket of freshly harvested Detroit Dark Red beets for storage.
Photo Pam Dawling

Store: Beets before 15-20°F (-9.5 to -7°C), cabbage, carrots before 12° F (-11°C), celeriac before 20°F (-7°C), kohlrabi before 15°F (-9.5°C), winter radish including daikon before 20°F (-7°C), rutabagas, turnips before 20°F (-7°C).

Use soon: Asian greens, broccoli, cabbage, chard, lettuce, radishes

3. Hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter.

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

In zone 7, such crops need to be hardy to 0°-10°F (-17.8°C to -12.3°C): Collards, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, leeks, parsnips, scallions, spinach.

4. Overwinter crops for spring harvests before the main season.

A stormy winter day, garlic, rowcovered spinach beds and our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

In zone 7, they need to be hardy to 0°-10°F (-17.8°C to -12.3°C): Cabbage, carrots, chard, collards, garlic and garlic scallions, kale, multiplier onions (potato onions), scallions, spinach.

Frost is more likely at Twin Oaks if:

  • The date is after 10/14 (or before 4/30).
  • The daytime high temperature was less than 70°F (21°C).
  • The sky is clear.
  • The temperature at sunset is less than 50°F (10°C).
  • The dew point forecast is low, close to freezing. Frost is unlikely if the dew point is 43°F or more.
  • The Wunderground 3.30pm forecast low for Louisa Northside is 37°F (3°C) or less.
  • The soil is dry and cool.
  • The moon is full or new.
  • There is little or no breeze, although if temperatures are falling fast, the wind is from NW and the sky is clear, then polar air may be moving in, and we’ll get a hard freeze.
Ice on the pond.
Credit Ezra Freeman

Frost Alert Card

For just this time of year, we keep a Frost Alert Card reminding us which crops to pay attention to if a frost threatens. We check the forecast online at 3.30 pm (we find that’s late enough to be fairly accurate about night temperatures and early enough to give us time to get vulnerable crops covered).

The big decision is the triage of harvest/cover/let go. Our list is not just crops that will die with the first frost but also ones that will soon need covering as temperatures decrease.

  • Cover lettuce, zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, beans, Chinese cabbage, pak choy, lettuce and celery.
  • Harvest crops listed above that can’t or won’t be covered.
  • Harvest all ripe tomatoes, eggplant, corn, limas, cowpeas, okra, melons.
  • Harvest peppers facing the open sky, regardless of color. (Often only the top of the plant will get frosted).
  • Check winter squash and harvest any very exposed squash.
  • Set up sprinklers for the night, on tomatoes, peppers and a cluster of beds with high value crops.
Peppers that are protected by leaves can survive a light frost. Photo Pam Dawling

We really like this pepper strategy we have developed: by picking just the peppers exposed to the sky, we reduce the immediate workload (and the immediate pile up of peppers in the cooler!) and we often get a couple of milder weeks after the first frost before the next. By then the top layer of leaves that got frosted the first time will have died and a whole new layer of peppers will be exposed and need harvesting. This way we get fewer peppers at once, and a higher percentage of ripe peppers, which have so much more flavor.

Our overhead sprinkler strategy is useful if a frost is coming early when we still have many tomatoes we’d like to vine-ripen. Keep the sprinkler running until the sun is shining on the plant sin the morning, or the sir temperature is above freezing again. The constant supply of water during the night does two things. First water gives off heat as it freezes. Yes, really. It’s easier to understand ice taking in heat to melt, but the flip side is that water gives off heat as it freezes. This latent heat of freezing helps warm the crops. And if ice does form, the shell of ice around the plants stops more cold damage happening.

Frost Alert List

Task

Crop

Notes

 

Harvest all edible

Asparagus beans

 

Harvest all edible

Eggplant

 

Harvest all edible

Okra

 

Harvest all edible

Tomatoes

Including green ones

Harvest all edible

Peppers exposed to the sky

 

Harvest all edible

West Indian gherkins

 

Harvest all edible

Pickling cucumbers

 

Harvest all edible

Corn

 

Harvest all edible

Beans #4, 5, 6, then cover

Uncover once mild again

 

 

 

Thick row cover

Squash

Spring hoops or none. Ditto

Thick row cover

Slicing cucumbers

Spring hoops or none. Ditto

Thick row cover

Celery

Double hoops – leave covered

Thick row cover

Last lettuce bed

Double hoops – leave covered

Set sprinklers

Slicer tomatoes

Overnight from before 32F till after sun shines on plants

Set sprinklers

Roma paste tomatoes and peppers

Ditto

Set sprinklers

Other vulnerable raised bed crops

Ditto

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. Pick the green and the ripe ones before a frost.
Photo Pan Dawling

Cold Weather Crop Protection

  1. Rowcover – thick 1.25 oz rowcover gives about 6F (3.3C) degrees of frost protection. Use hoops.
  2. Low tunnels and Quick Hoops are wider version of using rowcover. They need the edges weighting down. Best for climates where the crops are being stored in the ground until spring, when they start growing again. Less useful in climates like ours which have very variable winter temperatures, and are warm enough that we realistically expect to harvest during the winter, not just before and after.
  3. Caterpillar tunnels – 2 beds plus 1 path, tall enough to walk in. Rope holds cover in place, no sandbags.
  4. High tunnels (= hoophouses), single or double layer. Double layer gives 8F (4.5C) degrees of protection, plus plants can survive 14F/8C colder than they can outside, without extra rowcover; at least 21F/12C colder than outside with thick rowcover. Leafy crops are not weather-beaten. We strongly believe in two layers of plastic and no inner tunnels (rowcovers) unless the night will be 8°F (-13°C) or colder outdoors.

Hoophouse Notes

Salad greens in a hoophouse in zone 7 can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14°F (-10°C). A test year: Lettuce, Mizuna, Turnips, Russian kales, Senposai, Tyee spinach, Tatsoi, Yukina Savoy survived a hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with. Brite Lights chard got frozen leaf stems.

Rolls of rowcover in our hoophouse ready to pull over the beds on very cold nights.
Photo Wren Vile

Other Posts on These Topics

10/18/16 Getting Ready for Frost

10/21/19 Preparing for Frost and Cold Weather

10/19/20 Harvest and Maturity Indicators in Vegetable Harvests.

10/16/18 Season Extension and Frost Preparations

Harvesting and Storing Winter Squash

Sweet Meat winter squash, a Maxima type.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

There are four main types of winter squash, and some hybrid crosses. Refer back to your catalogs or websites if you are unsure which type your varieties belong to, as this helps determine when to harvest. If you haven;t grown any winter squash this year, use these photos and descriptions to help you plan for next year. Most of our photos are from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We tend to get caught up in the excitement of harvest, and forget to take photos!

Leave the squash on the vine until fully mature. Once the vine is dead, the squash can’t get bigger, but can ripen, change color and convert starches to sugars, (tasting better). In general, squash are fully mature and storable when the skin cannot be pierced by fingernails, but testing each one would leave ugly scars and reduce shelf life, so learn the other signs of ripeness. Yield could be 3¼ lbs per row foot (about 5 kg per meter.)

Not all the squash on one plant will be ripe at the same time, but they come to no harm sitting in the field (provided there is neither frost nor groundhogs). We harvest once a week, using pruners. We cut them with fairly long stems, which helps them store best. Those who need to pack squash in crates remove the stems so that they do not injure their neighboring squash. If you do this, you need to cure the open ends before crating. Handle squash as if they were eggs, not footballs. Bruising leads to rot in storage. Look for black rot infestations (concentric circles on butternut) and either compost those, or salvage the good parts for immediate use.

Pepo Squashes are ready soonest

Candystick Dessert Delicata winter squash. These are Pepo types.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The first squash ready to harvest (in early September) are the Pepo “winter” squash species (more properly called fall squash), including acorn squash, delicata, dumplings, spaghetti squash, and most orange pumpkins. If you want to start harvesting these in August next year, sow earlier than late May! Pepo squash are fast maturing, short-storing, mild flavored. They have prickly leaves and stems. They are susceptible to vine borers, and perhaps a little more susceptible to viruses than other types. Pepos have hard, five sided stems, and the fruits are often ribbed.

When they are ripe, the “ground-spot” of Pepos usually becomes the color of pumpkin pie filling after the cinnamon is stirred in, or else bright orange. The stem will still be bright green. Wait till at least 45 days after pollination. Harvesting too early will disappoint: the squash will be watery and fibrous, without sweetness. Pepos can store up to 4 months, so check them every week and eat them up before New Year.

Maxima Squash

Maxima squash plants have huge hairy leaves. Fruits have thick round stems, different from the angular stems of the other species. This group includes buttercups/kabochas, hubbards, bananas, the Big Max giant pumpkin, Jarrahdale, Candy Roaster, Galeux d’Eysines and Rouge Vif d’Etampes. They are very susceptible to wilts, borers and squash bug damage. We have found Jarrahdale to have relatively high resistance to squash bugs compared to other Maximas. The hybrid Kabocha, Cha-Cha, is reliable. Kabocha may be harvested slightly under-ripe, as they continue to mature after harvest.

North Georgia Candy Roaster winter squash, a tasty Maxima variety. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Maxima squash are ripe when at least 75% of the stem looks dry and corky (tan, pocked, wrinkled). They have fine-textured good-flavored flesh They will store 3-5 months, sometimes longer.

The weakness of maxima compared to the others is susceptibility to downy mildew. There may be other fungal pathogens that maxima is more susceptible to.

In central Virginia, maximas are almost always a loss, due to squash vine borers. Ken Bezilla at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has watched the plants live for about 70-80 days, the fruits get nice and big and then the plants die all of a sudden. The safest way to grow them is under rowcover or netting, and keep them covered for the first 60 days (briefly uncovering for weeding and pollination).

Moschata squash

South Anna Butternut winter squash, a Moschata bred by Edmund Frost to resist Downy Mildew. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Moschata squash plants have large hairy leaves, and fruits have flared angular stems. This species is the most trouble-free, with no damage from borers and cucumber beetles. The tougher stems repel invaders. They need warm growing temperatures above 60°F (16°C). Butternuts and similar tan-colored squash, such as Seminole, Cheese, and the large Tahitian Butternut and Lunga di Napoli are in this group.

Mrs Amerson’s Winter Squash, a large and beautiful Moschata.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The Moschata species usually have bright orange, sweet, tasty flesh. These squash are ready when the skin is an even tan peanut-butter color, with no pale streaks or blotches. Many have green lines radiating down the squash from the edges of the stem. In some varieties, these green lines disappear when the squash is ripe, but not in all kinds. If in doubt, cook one and see. Or try a slice raw. These squash also have angular stems, but unlike the stems of pepo squashes, moschata stems flare out where they join the fruit. Moschatas can store 4-8 months or even longer. Seminole is a Moschata that will keep on the shelf for a whole year after harvest. It has a hard shell!

Mixta (Agyrosperma) Squash

Green Striped Cushaw Winter Squash, a Mixta variety, also known as Striped Crookneck.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The fourth species, Argyrosperma, or Mixta, includes many old-time varieties from the south. Flesh is often yellow rather than orange, and these squash are often cooked with sweeteners. Plants are rampant; leaves are large and hairy. Fruit stems are slightly flared, slightly angular, and hairy. This group has the best drought-resistance and also good resistance to borers and beetles. Cushaws are Mixta species. They are not all great storers.

Curing and Storing

Butternut and buttercup squash need to be cured at 80-85°F (27-29°C) for 7-10 days to be sweet tasting. Other varieties do not need to be cured, unless the stems have been removed, You can cure squash in a greenhouse with 80% shadecloth, or simply in a warm storage room.

Curing conditions for winter squash can be quite far from the ideals. Many people simply put the squash straight into storage Just don’t eat uncured butternut or buttercup squash, ie within two weeks of harvest, to avoid disappointment.

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Store winter squash in relatively warm and dry conditions: 50-60°F (10-15°C) and 50-75% humidity. Check through stored squash once a week, removing any that are rotting. Squash have a medium demand for ventilation, similar to carrots, more than potatoes. Temperatures below 50°F (10°C) can cause chilling injury, which reduces shelf life. Do not store squash with potatoes or onions; like most ripe fruit crops, squash exhales ethylene, which increases sprouting in potatoes and onions (and other roots and bulbs).

More Information:

Roxbury Harvest Manual 2012

ATTRA Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production

Workhorse Crops for September

Burpee’s Butterbush Winter Squash.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Here we are with my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (including two pairs). These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions. My goal with this series is to help you become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as you deal with another strange year. Maybe you are not at home as much as last year, or maybe your helpers have gone back to school, but you deeply appreciate growing your own food.  You want less time-consuming crops and growing methods. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as August.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in September

In September in central Virginia, the heat is less oppressive, especially since Tropical Depression Ida washed by. The day-length is definitely shorter, soon we will be at the equinox with only 12 hours of daylight. Gardening is more focused on harvesting and less on planting. Food processing is at its busiest.

This month we will put our fall and winter garden plan into action. Plants take longer to mature from September onwards, so don’t delay any plantings. Try a few different dates, and keep good records, especially if you’re a new farmer or gardener, and improve your plan for next year.

In September we only have enough good growing conditions to plant 5 of our 14 Workhorse crops in central Virginia. Down from last month’s 8. We can still transplant cabbage, collards and kale, and sow carrots, and chard (or transplant the chard.)

Cabbage and Collards:

September is much too late for us to start cabbage, but we could still transplant early in the month, if we have transplants with four true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing). If you only have bigger transplants, remove some of the older leaves until four leaves remain. This will help the plants survive by reducing evaporation (transpiration) losses. Collards can be sown here until September 15.

If insect pests are a problem, cover the transplants for four weeks, until they are big enough to survive. Nets are better than rowcover in hot weather, as airflow is better and heating is less. I wrote last month about ProtekNet Insect Exclusion Netting from Dubois Agrinovation.  

Another advantage of nets over rowcover is that you can see what’s growing! Back before ProtekNet I found one year that I had been studiously watering a covered bed that was mostly galinsoga! It was quite big, and I had assumed it was greens!

Two weeks after transplanting, till or hoe around the plants. Four weeks after transplanting, remove the netting entirely, and hoe and till again. At that point you could undersow with a mix of clovers to be a long-term cover crop, unless you plan to plant an early spring crop in that bed.

Young carrot plants, thinned to one inch.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

This is actually late for carrots but if you failed to establish them in August, hurry out and sow some early in September. You won’t get big carrots, but you’ll still get carrots!  Hoe between the rows as soon as you can see them, because carrots grow slowly and fall weeds grow fast!

Once the carrots are 1” (2.5 cm) tall, hand weed, cultivate with claws (to kill weeds that haven’t even emerged yet) and thin to 1” (2.5 cm) apart. Simply pulling the weeds is not as good as also lightly disturbing the surface of the soil. Heavy rains can cause crusting, which makes it hard for seedlings to grow. Breaking up the crust lets air and water in. I have noticed that crops make a growth spurt after hoeing. If you think you might have carrot rust flies in your area, collect up all the carrot thinnings and take them to the compost pile, so that the pests won’t be attracted by the smell of carrot leaves, and move in to eat your carrots.

Later thin your carrots to 3” (7.5 cm) and weed again. That’s a September task, if you sowed in August. The tiny ones you pull out may be big enough to wash and throw in a salad. Before they develop the orange color they don’t have much flavor, but they are a treat for the eyes anyway!

Kale:

We grow Vates dwarf Scotch curled kale, the most cold-hardy variety I’ve found. I’ve tried every type of kale I could get my hands on, including some imported from Europe. Vates isn’t huge – we plant 4 rows 10″ (25 cm) apart in each bed. We want 6 beds of kale to over-winter, and there isn’t time to transplant it all. We direct sow, two beds at a time, every 6 days. We water the two newly sown beds, daily as needed, until the seedlings emerge.

Often we get patchy emergence in those hot August days, so we use carefully dug thinnings to fill gaps. Our goal is one plant every foot (30 cm). Our mixed direct-sow/transplant method requires less watering than if direct sown all at once and gives us a solution if we get patchy germination. September 15 is our last sowing date for kale for harvests in late fall and through the winter. We cover the beds with netting, until the plants are large, or the weather gets too cold for pests.

Kale makes some growth whenever the temperature is above about 40°F (5°C), which happens in our winters on many days, making this a valuable winter crop. We will also sow more kale in late January, to give us a spring crop.

An outdoor bed of young Vates kale Photo Kathryn Simmons

Chard: Swiss chard can be sown here in August, and transplanted in September for a good fall harvest, with the option of overwintering under rowcover. It grows small leaves after only 35 days, and full-size leaves after 50 days. Chard is our poster-child insurance crop! So easy! So productive! It is not eaten by bugs, and does not have problems germinating in hot weather like spinach does.

You could direct sow chard in September and protect it for the winter, for a late winter and early spring harvest.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in September

Eleven of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested in September (also true in August, but now with one substitution!)

Beans­ can be harvested until the first frost (or later if we cover the beds with rowcover when a frost threatens). We also cover the bean beds (and squash, cucumbers, zucchini and other tender crops) whenever there is a chilly spell. This keeps the plants warmer and growing faster. Vegetable crops begin to take longer to ripen in September. It’s certainly true that pollinating insects can’t get at the flowers to perform their pollination services and make more beans, etc. But that doesn’t matter. We are more interested in fattening up the already pollinated beans!

Plenty of beans to eat in September.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Cabbage We eat about 50lbs (25 k) a week. Fall planted cabbage will be ready from September 25. We like Early Jersey Wakefield and Farao for fast-maturing cabbage.

Carrots: We generally hope not to need to sow carrots between June and the beginning of August, because carrots grown in hot weather don’t taste sweet and can even be soapy. If we did not grow enough carrots in the spring, we sow in June, or July and harvest those carrots about 2-3 months later (less time in warm weather, longer as the weather starts to cool in the fall). So, some years we harvest carrots in September.

Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. Snap or cut off some outer leaves and refrigerate them promptly. We use our Leafy Greens Mantra “8 for later” meaning that we make sure to leave at least eight of the inner leaves on each plant, as we harvest the outer leaves. With chard, we can take a couple more than this, but we do want to harvest at sustainable levels.

To overwinter chard in our climate, we cover the bed with rowcover on hoops. We can continue to make harvests into early winter. The mulch and rowcover help keep warmth in the soil, which keeps the crop growing.

Another method of over-wintering chard in reliably cooler climates, is to make a big harvest of all the sizeable leaves, just before the daytime temperatures are around freezing, then pile tree leaves, straw or hay over the bed for the winter. Covering the whole stack with rowcover is even better. Our winter conditions are too variable for this – we get cold spells interspersed with warm spells in almost every month, causing the plants to make some growth among the mulch.

The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C).

Alabama Blue collards.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Collards can be lightly harvested in September, if you started them early enough. What’s more likely true for us, is being able to harvest leaves of senposai. No, not the same as collards! But it fills the same spot on the dinner-plate – fresh leafy greens. It’s been a long summer with only chard, this year, as we were short of spring cabbage, and don’t have any fall cabbage or broccoli yet.

Potatoes: We can plant potatoes between mid-March and mid-June, leading to harvests in July-October. It’s as important not to leave potatoes baking in the sun as it is to protect them from frost, both when planting and when harvesting. Read more about potato harvest here.

Our March-planted potatoes are in the root cellar. By mid-September, we need to cool the cellar to 60°F (16°C)

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

Sweet Corn harvest is still going strong. Sweet corn is ready to harvest about three weeks after the first silks appear. Some growers say you should harvest daily, but we find that 3 days a week is often enough, and gives us a nice amount from our 1050-1325 ft (320-400 m) plantings to feed our community. We sow sweet corn six times, for continuous harvests from early July to mid-October.

Corn is ready when the silks are brown, not before! If they are brown, and the ears are plump and filled to the end with kernels, take a closer look. Mature ears stand away from the stalks. If you are still learning, slit the husks at the side of the ear with your thumb nails and look at the kernels. (Don’t puncture the husks on the topside of the ear as the dew and a million tiny beetles will get in and make a mess.) The kernels should be a bit square and fairly tight-packed, not round and pearly with rounded diamond-shaped spaces between them. An opaque, milky juice will seep out of punctured kernels. If your sample ear wasn’t ready, push the husks closed over the ear and wait a few days.

Be sure to shade your corn after harvest and get it cooled as soon as possible, as the flavor deteriorates if it sits around.

Amy’s Apricot tomato from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tomatoes are cranking out their fruit but starting to look “back-endish” – spotty, and smaller. To minimize the spread of fungal diseases, wait for the leaves to dry in the morning, before harvesting. We plant maincrop tomatoes (sown in mid-March) and late tomatoes (sown in mid-May). This way the late ones peak after the maincrop, and keep the plentiful supply going longer. This year our late bed includes a few Black Cherry and Sun Gold cherry tomatoes as well as lots of our standards: Tropic, a heat-tolerant, disease-resistant round red one, and Jubilee, a lovely flavorful orange that is also a feast for the eyes. This year I have been particularly impressed with its healthiness – the fruits are reliably unblemished and do not readily split. Truly a workhorse variety!

Watermelon harvest is peaking. They don’t ripen further after harvest, so get good at determining watermelon ripeness. I wrote about that in my August post. An unripe watermelon is a sad waste, as most plants only produce two melons.

We store our watermelons outdoors, under the eaves of the house, where they will stay in good shape for a few weeks. We used to store them under the trees further from the building, but the squirrels learned to bite their way in, and taught each other the trick!

When we have enough watermelon harvested (500-600), we roll up the drip tape and disk the plot, to get a good stand of winter cover crops. We use winter wheat and crimson clover if before October 14. I’ll address this more next month. We used to try to harvest every last watermelon until the year I realized that we can only eat so many, and that watermelons in October are of limited interest. Good cover crops are important for taking care of the soil mini-livestock.

A fine winter squash medley.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Winter Squash harvest happens once a week throughout September and October. This is next week’s blog topic. Winter squash is very rewarding to grow, providing high yields for not much work. Stored winter squash can provide meals all winter and also in early spring when other crops are scarce.

ATTRA Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production

ATTRA has a very good publication Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production. Add it to your winter reading if you plan to grow winter squash next year!

Zucchini and summer squash are still being harvested every day. Our last sowing was August 5. We harvest beyond the first fall frost, by covering that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights. See above, under Beans for our thinking about fattening up the last fruits.

From storage: spring cabbage, carrots, garlic and potatoes; watermelon from under the trees or the roof overhang.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic:                    Garlic Storage

Between late September and early October, we move our stored garlic from the basement to the walk-in cooler. the garlic was stored in the basement from June to the end of September, where the temperature was above 56°F (13°C) which is a perfectly fine storage temperature for garlic. Once the basement gets colder than that, we move the garlic to the refrigerator, where it will be below 40°F (10°C). The temperature range of 40°F to 56°F (10-13°C) is where garlic sprouts readily.

Hanging garlic of many varieties in bunches.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Workhorse Crops for August

Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Workhorse Crops for August

I’m back again with my series of 14 Workhorse Crops (including two pairs) to focus on monthly until April 2022: These are crops that we can rely on under a wide range of conditions. Some Workhorse Crops are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops”, some are especially profitable (for those growing for market), and watermelons are more of a circus pony than a workhorse!

I hope this series will help you become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as your lives resettle. Maybe you are not at home as much as last year, but you’ve learned to deeply appreciate growing your own food.  So you need to choose less time-consuming crops and growing methods. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as July.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in August

Young Farao cabbage, a good fast-growing variety.
Photo Pam Dawling

In August here in central Virginia, the heat is still oppressive, but the day-length is definitely getting shorter. We and our crops have a longer night in which to recover for the next hot day. I remember the year I realized we just had to do some of our broccoli transplanting in the late afternoons, because the evenings no longer held enough daylight! Since those days we have reduced the size of our fall broccoli planting!

This month we will really need to plan for our fall and winter garden and execute our plan. There’s no making up for lost time in the fall! As the days get shorter and the temperatures (thankfully) start to drop, plants take longer to mature. A delay of a day or two in sowing leads to a delay of a week or two (or more) in the start of the harvest. Keep records and try several dates, especially if this is your first year, so you can fine tune your plan next year.

In August we can plant 8 of our 14 Workhorse crops in central Virginia.

Beans, zucchini and summer squash

These warm-weather crops get their absolute last chance before the season gets too cold. We sow our last bush green beans 8/1-8/3, and zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers by 8/5 at the latest. If you are in a colder climate than ours, with a first frost earlier than our October 14 average, your last sowings of beans, zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers were in July. It’s too late for us to sow edamame or sweet corn. More on Last Chance Sowings in the Special Topic at the end.

Fall carrots.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Carrots

We also reach our Last Chance for carrots for the year. We usually make a huge sowing of carrots on August 4, as our storage crop for the winter. We need 1500 pounds of carrots to feed us through the whole winter (30 bags). We sow 4000 row feet (1220 m), usually on temporary beds where we grew garlic until June, followed by a round or two of buckwheat cover crop before preparing the beds for the carrots. It really pays with carrots to reduce the weed level. We mulch our garlic and weed it every month from February until we remove the mulch when we see scapes in mid-May. Few weeds grow in the three weeks before we harvest. Buckwheat is a fast growing summer cover crop that is a modest size and easy to manage. It flowers about 4 weeks after sowing, and the flowers attract many beneficial insects.

After sowing the carrots with our trusty EarthWay seeder, we keep the soil damp by nightly watering until we see the red hooped stems of our indicator beet seedlings emerging. Then we know it’s time to flameweed. It’s usually the fourth day after sowing the carrots. This dispatches any new weeds thinking of emerging. As soon as we can see well enough to do so, we hoe between the rows with our scuffle hoes (stirrup hoes). Once the carrots are 1” (2.5 cm) tall, we hand weed, cultivate with claws (to kill weeds that haven’t even emerged yet) and thin to 1” (2.5 cm). Later we thin to 3” (7.5 cm) and weed again. That’s a September task.

Cabbage and Collards:

For the cool weather greens we are in our second season for the year. August is too late for us to start broccoli, collards or cabbage. In July and August we transplant the starts we sowed in June and July. At this time of year, we aim to transplant brassicas at four true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing). In hot weather, use younger transplants than you would in spring, because larger plants wilt from high transpiration losses. If we find ourselves transplanting bigger plants, we remove a couple of the older leaves to reduce these losses.

To avoid flea beetles and harlequin bugs, we cover the nursery seedbeds until we transplant, and then cover the transplants for four weeks, until the plants are big enough to survive bug bites. Nets are better than rowcover in hot weather, as airflow is better and heating is less. This might require a bit of re-planning to get best value from the netting. For example – instead of planting the rows an equal distance apart, plant two rows closer than before, and then have wider aisles. One width of netting can cover two rows of brassicas, each with their own (offset) hoops.

Transplant seedlings under insect netting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Dubois Agrinovation has a range of ProtekNet Insect Exclusion Netting, made of clear high-density knitted polyamide (lighter weights), polypropylene/olefin (mid-weight) or polyethylene (heavy weights), with UV resistance. Be sure to buy the size mesh that keeps out the pest you are guarding against. See the Dimensions and Specifications tab on their website. We have bought the 0.0335″ x 0.0335″ (0.85 mm x 0.85 mm) mesh (against harlequin bugs) and the 0.0138″ x 0.0138″ (0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) mesh against flea beetles. Pieces can be sewn together, or Dubois will join them with zippers. See the Details tab for the insects excluded by each particular mesh. Light transmission is 88-93%. Ours have lasted many years, longer than rowcover. Use hoops to hold the mesh above the plants so insects can’t lay eggs through the holes. Purple Mountain Organics sell the whole range in full rolls, and the 25 g in 6.9’ x 33’. Johnny’s Seeds sells 6.9’ x 328’ 25 g “Thrips Net”. Compare shipping charges as well as netting price.

Two weeks after transplanting, we till or wheelhoe between the rows and hoe around the plants, removing the minimum amount of netting at any one time that we have to. Four weeks after transplanting, we remove the netting entirely, and hoe and till again. This time we undersow with a mix of clovers to be a long-term cover crop.

Kale:

We sow 6 beds of kale, two every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, and if we need to resow, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. We focus our attention on the two newly sown beds, watering daily as needed, until the seedlings emerge.

We want a lot of kale, and there isn’t time to transplant it all. We grow Vates dwarf Scotch curled, the most cold-hardy variety I’ve found. It isn’t huge – we plant 4 rows per bed 10″ (25 cm) apart. We’re looking at 6x4x90 plants.

We carefully thin, leaving one plant every foot (30 cm). Often we’ll get patchy emergence and we use the carefully dug thinnings to fill gaps and to plant other beds, at the same plant spacing. Our mixed direct-sow/transplant method allows for the fact of patchy germination, and requires less watering than if direct sowing it all at once. If your climate is a colder zone than ours, you would start sowing kale in July. We cover the beds with Proteknet.

Kale make some growth whenever the temperature is above about 40°F (5°C), which happens in our winters on many days, making this a valuable winter crop.

ProtekNet over kale transplants in August.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Chard: Swiss chard can be sown here in July or August, for a good fall harvest, with the option of overwintering under rowcover. It grows small leaves after only 35 days, and full-size leaves after 50 days. Chard is not eaten by flea beetles, and does not have problems germinating in hot weather like spinach does. Chard is our poster-child insurance crop! So easy! So productive!

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in August

Eleven of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested in August!

Beans­ can be harvested here from late June until the first frost (or later if we cover the beds with rowcover when a frost threatens).

Cabbage planted in the spring is ready here from late May until mid-July, or a little later if we planted late-maturing varieties. When I was a new gardener I thought “early varieties” were to be planted early, and “late varieties” to be planted later. It would be clearer if they were labeled “fast” and “slow”! For the second half of the year, late varieties need to be sown earlier than early varieties to get a harvestable crop before it gets too cold. Be sure to check and compare the days to maturity numbers for the varieties you are growing.

We store enough spring cabbage to feed us until we start harvesting fall cabbage.  It’s about a 50lb (25 k) bag a week. Fall planted cabbage won’t be ready until September 25.

Danvers Half Long carrot, a good workhorse variety!
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Carrots: After May we hope not to need to sow more carrots until the beginning of August, because carrots grown in hot weather don’t taste sweet and can even be soapy. But home-grown hot weather carrots are still better than industrial carrots from thousands of miles away. This year we finished harvesting our spring carrots in July and stored them in the walk-in cooler.

If we have not grown enough carrots in the spring, we sow in June, or July if we must. When we do sow in June and July, those carrots are ready about 2-3 months after sowing (less time in warm weather, longer as the weather starts to cool in the fall)

Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. Just snap or cut off some outer leaves and stand them in a bucket with a little water (or if your cooler isn’t as big as ours, put them in a loose plastic bag in your fridge) until you cook them. For sustainable harvesting levels, we use our standard leafy green mnemonic “8 for later” meaning that we make sure to leave at least eight of the inner leaves on each plant, as we harvest the outer leaves. With chard, we can take a couple more than this, but we don’t want to exhaust our workhorses!

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

Chard is biennial, and will not bolt the first year (unless stressed by lack of water).  Red chards bolt more easily than the green ones, presumably red crops are a bit stressed already, as they are short of chlorophyll, compared to the green ones, making photosynthesis harder work.

To overwinter chard in our climate, we cover the bed with rowcover on hoops. We can continue to make harvests into early winter. The mulch and rowcover help keep warmth in the soil, which keeps the crop growing.

Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). If you want to overwinter chard in a climate colder than those temperatures, you can make a heavy harvest just before the weather turns seriously cold. This leaves the growing points of the plants alive. Cover the whole bed with thick straw or hay and wait for spring.

Fordhook Giant is a very reliable summer leafy green.
Photo Pam Dawling

Potatoes, if planted in April would be harvested in August here. We can plant potatoes between mid-March and mid-June, leading to harvests in July-October. It’s as important not to leave potatoes baking in the sun as it is to protect them from frost, both when planting and when harvesting. Read more about potato harvest here.

Sweet Corn harvest is well underway. Usually we start sowing as early as possible and hope to start harvesting on 4th July. Sweet corn will be ready to harvest about three weeks after the first silks appear. This year we are later, but it’s just as delicious. We harvest 3 days a week, which gives us a nice amount from our 1050-1325 ft (320-400 m) plantings to feed our community. Some growers say you should harvest daily, but we find every other day is often enough. We are able to rush our sweet corn straight to the cooler, and it doesn’t have to travel after that, so we enjoy very fresh corn. Be sure to shade your corn after harvest and get it cooled as soon as possible, as the flavor deteriorates if it sits around.

Silver Queen nearly ready to pick
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Determining sweet corn maturity can be hard for new growers. Corn is ready when the silks become brown and dry. If the silks are not brown, just walk on by! If they are brown, and the ears are plump and filled to the end with kernels, take a closer look. Mature ears stand away from the stalks. This is called “flagging”. If you are still unsure, and don’t want to make too many mistakes, slit the husks at the side of the ear with your thumb nails and look at the kernels. (Don’t puncture the husks on the top of the ear as the dew and a million tiny beetles will get in and make a mess.) They should be a bit squarish and tight packed, not round and pearly with spaces between them. An opaque, milky juice will seep out of punctured kernels. If your sample ear wasn’t ready, push the husks closed over the cur and wait a few days.

Jubilee tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tomatoes are ripening fast outdoors now. Wait for the leaves to dry from rain or dew, before touching the plants, to minimize the spread of fungal diseases. Lightly press the bottom of the tomato to make sure it is soft enough to be fully ripe. Snap the tomato off at the knuckle, so that the plant gets the signal the fruit has gone, and will ripen more. We pop off the green calyx and set the tomatoes in plastic crates that fit two or three layers of fruit. It’s always tempting to include cracked ones, but they quickly turn nasty, so only do that if you are going to sort them promptly and process the damaged ones.

Watermelon harvest is starting. Determining ripeness is both art and science, and it’s worth getting good at it, as harvested watermelons don’t ripen further after harvest. An unripe watermelon is a sad waste.

Crimson Sweet watermelon
Photo Nina Gentle

The first step is to look at your sowing date and the days to maturity for the variety you’re growing. If it’s too soon for them to be ready, don’t tempt yourself by looking! If the dates are auspicious, the next step is to look at a big melon and find the curly little tendril that grows from the vine where the melon is attached (but on the opposite side of the vine). It must be brown and dry. If not, leave the melon untouched!

If it is brown, you can slap the melon and listen. The sound should be like thumping your chest, not your head or your belly! If that seems to indicate ripeness, we have one last check, that works for Crimson Sweet. I’m not completely sure it works for all varieties, although I think it should. Stand astride the melon, bend and put your flat hands, heel to heel, over the width of the melon. Pause and ensure silence (if you have coworkers) and then press down firmly with quite a bit of weight. If the melon is ripe, you will hear and feel a scrunch, as the ripe watermelon flesh splits inside the melon. Then you know you have a really good one. Rural legend says this test only works once, so don’t practice, just do it for real!

Cut the melon stem and gently lift and set the melon down in the cart, truck or at the side of the patch. I know some crews throw the melons from one person to another, but Crimson Sweets are too big, in my opinion.

Note that these rules apply to watermelons, not to any other type of melon.

Golden Glory zucchini.
Photo Pam Dawling

Zucchini and summer squash in our climate need harvesting every day, if we are going to avoid blimps. Summer squash can be twisted off the plants, but zucchini need to be cut. The hairs on the leaves, combined with sweat, can cause unpleasant itchiness. Wear long sleeves or make special sleeves for this job that are not attached to any particular shirt. Make a casing and insert elastic around the top edge (and the bottom, if there are no cuffs). These sleeves can be bought, but everyone probably has an old shirt and could make their own.

We harvest every day to the fall frost (or beyond if we remember to cover that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights.).

From storage: spring cabbage, carrots and potatoes.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for August:

Newly emerged beans (in rather dry soil).
Photo Pam Dawling

Formula to Calculate Last Planting Date for Warm Weather Crops

To calculate the last worthwhile sowing date for warm weather crops, add the number of days to maturity and the length of your desired harvest period, and subtract this number from your average first frost date. Using yellow squash as an example:

  • Number of days from seeding to harvest                                           50
  • Desired length of the harvest period                                                    21
  • 14 days to allow for the slowing rate of growth in the fall           14
  • 14 days to allow for an early frost (but we have rowcover)           0
  • Days before the first frost = total of these                                        = 85
  • Last date for sowing, with October 14 first frost date                  = July 21

But by throwing rowcover over the last planting during cold spells, we effectively extend the growing season by 2 weeks, and we can sow our last planting of squash on Aug 5.

Morris Heading Collards.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Last Chance Sowings: Fast Fall Crops for When Time is Short

Some crops mature in 60 days or less. These are mostly greens and fast-growing root vegetables. They are useful to fill space and time before you plant winter cover crops.

Ready in 30–35 days:

  • arugula, frilly mustards, kale, radishes.
  • some Asian greens: Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, Tokyo Bekana.
  • spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories), winter purslane.

Ready in 35–45 days:

  • corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley, chervil
  • More Asian greens: Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy

Ready in 45–60 days:

  • beets, Napa cabbage, small cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield), collards, kohlrabi, pak choy, turnips

Use the chart below to figure out your last chance to sow crops with various days to maturity

Sowing dates for fall crops with various days to maturity

Days to   For harvest For harvest For harvest
Maturity   mid-Sept- late Sept- from  
    mid Oct mid-Oct mid-Oct
30d   27-Jul 16-Aug 31-Aug
40d   17-Jul 6-Aug 21-Aug
50d   7-Jul 27-Jul 11-Aug
60d   27-Jun 17-Jul 1-Aug
70d   17-Jun 7-Jul 22-Jul

For example, Early Purple Vienna Kohlrabi takes only 60 days from sowing to harvest in spring. Allow for the slowing rate of growth in fall (unless you will use rowcover). Kohlrabi is hardy to maybe 15°F (-9.4°C). When is it likely to get that cold? Not before the beginning of November here, so counting back 31 days in October, plus 30 in September, plus 31 in August – that’s 92 days already, more than enough. We could sow kohlrabi in early August and get a crop at the end of October.

A September sowing of kohlrabi. Too late for roots, we ate the greens.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Workhorse Crops for July

Provider beans at the beginning of July.
Photo Pam Dawling

In this monthly series, I have chosen 14 Workhorse Crops (including two pairs) to focus on until April 2022: These are crops that we can rely on under a wide range of conditions. Some Workhorse Crops are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops”, some are especially profitable (for those growing for market), and watermelons are simply the circus pony –  we all need fun!

I hope this series will help growers become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as we expand our lives again. Perhaps you don’t have as much time at home as last year, but no need to give up growing your own food, just make some smart choices of less time-consuming crops and growing methods.

See my book review of McCrate and Halm’s High Yield Vegetable Gardening for ideas on labor-saving gardening methods

Workhorse Crops to Plant in July

In July here in central Virginia, the heat strikes hard, and the daylight has started to get a tiny bit shorter. This month we reach the peak of the year – next month we will really need to plan and execute our plans for a fall and winter garden. Most of our work in July is harvesting and weed control. In July we can plant 7 of our 14 Workhorse Crops, including the two pairs. It’s too late for asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, and winter squash.

July’s Last Chance Sowings – (more Last Chances in August).

We sow our last edamame 7/14 and our last sweet corn 7/16. We sow our last bush green beans 8/1-8/3, and zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers by 8/5 at the latest. If you are in a colder climate than ours, with a first frost earlier than our October 14, your last sowings of beans, zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers will be in July.

In July we still have time to sow fall crops that need 30-50 days to maturity, if we want to harvest them between mid-September and mid-October. For crops to harvest from late September to late October, we have time for those that take 30-70 days.

Beans: We sow bush beans every few weeks to keep up supplies of tender beautiful beans. See June’s Special Topic section for info about Succession Planting, to help you determine when and how often to sow beans, and how we control Mexican Bean Beetles that used to destroy our bean plantings. Our workhorse green bush bean is Provider. Bush Blue Lake comes a close second, and we often alternate them, with Provider for the 1st, 3rd, 5th sowings and Blue Lake for the 2nd and 4th. Provider is a little bit more cold-tolerant, and a little faster than Bush Blue Lake, at 50 days compared to 55.

Cabbage: Most brassicas will germinate fast at 86°F (30°C). The challenge is keeping the soil moist. For fall crops, we use an outdoor nursery seedbed and bare root transplants, because this works best for us. Having the seedlings directly in the soil “drought-proofs” them to some extent; they can form deep roots and don’t dry out so fast. Other people might prefer to sow in flats.

Fall brassica nursery seedbed with insect netting.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

To avoid flea beetles and harlequin bugs, we cover the beds until the plants are big enough to stand up for themselves against “pest bullying”. We like ProtekNet insect mesh on wire hoops. Overly thick rowcover or rowcover resting directly on the plants can make the seedlings more likely to die of fungal diseases in hot weather – good airflow is vital.

We aim to transplant most brassicas at four true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing). In hot weather, use younger transplants than you would in spring, because larger plants can wilt from high transpiration losses. If we find ourselves transplanting older plants, we remove a couple of the older leaves to reduce these losses.

We sow cabbage (and broccoli, and some Asian greens to transplant mid-late July) in June and July. August is too late for us to start those.

Carrots: After May we hope not to need to sow more until the beginning of August. We have just finished harvesting our spring carrots and have them bagged in the walk-in cooler. Carrots grown in hot weather don’t taste that good, but home-grown hot weather carrots are still better than ancient carrots from thousands of miles away. If we have not grown enough carrots by the end of May to see us through to October, we sow in June, and even July if we must. We shade the beds.

Chard: Swiss chard can be sown here in July or August, for a nice fall harvest. It germinates best at 85°F (29°C). It grows big leaves within 50 days of sowing, and smaller ones after only 35 days. Chard is not plagued by flea beetles, and does not have problems germinating in hot weather like spinach does. Chard is the poster-child insurance crop!

We use chard for fresh greens in summer, transplanted into a hay mulch in late April. Organic mulches help keep the soil cool during hot weather, so are very helpful for leafy greens. This crop will be in the ground until mid-winter, and mulch will keep back most of the weeds.

Remember, chard is biennial, and will not bolt the first year (unless stressed by lack of water).  I’ve noticed the red chards bolt more easily than the green ones. I suppose red crops are a bit stressed already, as they are short of chlorophyll, compared to the green ones, making photosynthesis harder work.

Sweet corn: we make 6 sowings of sweet corn, to harvest from July 4 to mid-October.

To calculate the last worthwhile sowing date, add the number of days to maturity and the length of the harvest window (7-14 days), and subtract this number from your average first frost date. For our 10/14 frost date, using an 80-day corn as an example, 80+7=87 days, brings us back to July 19 for our final sowing date. In practice, because corn matures faster in summer than in spring, this calculation gives you a little wiggle room in case the first frost is earlier than average. You could add a little more wiggle-room to be more sure. We make our last sowing on July 16, when there are not enough warm days left in the season to mature another sowing.

Kale and collards We sow 6 beds of kale, two each, every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. Often we’ll get patchy emergence and end up transplanting plants from one bed or one end of a bed to fill out the blank areas. If your climate is a colder zone than ours, you will be sowing kale and collards in July.

Young yellow squash.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Zucchini (courgettes) and summer squash: another crop type that we succession sow, to get a continuous supply. We make five or six plantings, each one half yellow squash (Zephyr, Gentry) and half zucchini (TenderGrey, Noche, Golden Glory). Now the soil is warm (60°F/15.5°C), we direct sow. The time from sowing to harvest is only around 42-54 days. 8/5 is our last sowing date for zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers. We like Noche zucchini for a disease-resistant zucchini variety (diseases are worse here later in summer).

After sowing, we hoop and cover the row with insect netting (rowcover works if it has no big holes). We have many bugs that like these plants, especially the striped cucumber beetles, so we keep the rows covered until female flowers appear. At that point we need the service of the pollinators, unless the squash is parthenocarpic (sets fruit without pollination). We pack away the covers, hoe and thin the squash to 24” (60 cm). It would be better to thin sooner, but we rarely find the time.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in July

Nine of our 14 workhorses can be harvested in July

Beans from early July/late June,

Cabbage is ready here from late May until mid-July. We store enough to feed us until we start harvesting fall cabbage.  For cabbage to store to eat over the summer, cut with a strong knife and set it upside down on the nest of leaves to dry a little. Come back along the row with a net or plastic bag and gather up the storage quality cabbages to refrigerate.

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

Sweet corn: Harvest before daybreak for best flavor, because the sugars manufactured in the plant the day before become concentrated during the night. We’re not that dedicated. We harvest ours in the morning, and hurry it to the walk-in cooler.

Harvest may start 18-24 days after half the ear silks show, if the weather has been reasonably warm. Judging corn’s ripeness is a skill, based on information from many of the senses. The first sign we look for is brown dead silks. If the ear has passed that test, we investigate further. All ears should look and feel plump and rounded to the tip. Each variety is a little different, so close attention is needed. Some varieties exhibit “flagging” of the ear, meaning it leans away from the stalk as it matures and gets heavier. New crew can test for ripeness by opening the side of the husk with thumb nails, and puncturing a kernel: the kernels should look filled-out and squarish, not round and pearly; the juice should be milky, not watery or doughy. The advantage of opening the side of the husks is that it is possible to close the gap if the ear is not ripe, without risk of collecting dew or rainfall. If the ear is ripe, we bend it downwards, give it a quarter-turn twist, and then pull up away from the plant.

We harvest every other day, which balances getting the amount we need with not spending more time than needed picking. Such a schedule can work well for CSA farms. Other growers could well need to harvest every day, if daily fresh corn is what your market needs. Leaving a three-day gap risks poor quality starchy ears and a lower total yield.

Take steps to keep the crop cool while harvesting. Never leave buckets of corn out in the sun. Even at room temperature, harvested OP ears lose half their sweetness in 24 hours.

After harvest, cool the corn quickly. Hydrocool if you have a large operation: drench or immerse the crop in near-freezing water. Otherwise, simply refrigerate and keep the corn cool until it reaches the consumer.

Carrots perhaps, although we do intend to get all our spring carrots harvested and stored before the weather gets very hot.

Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. Simply snap or cut off some outer leaves and stand them in a bucket with a little water until you cook them. For sustainable harvesting levels, we use the standard leafy green mnemonic “8 for later” meaning that we make sure to leave at least eight of the inner leaves on each plant, as we harvest the outer leaves. With chard, we can take a couple more than this, but we don’t want to exhaust our workhorses!

Garlic in the north might get harvested in July, but here in the mid-Atlantic ours has been curing for several weeks and is now ready for snipping, sorting and storing. I wrote about garlic recently. Several people have written to ask about the nylon netting in our photos in those posts. We don’t remember where we got it. The sides of the squares/diamonds are about 1.5”. A reader sent this photo and she is using Tenax fencing. It’s sold for deer fencing and is very strong.

240 heads of garlic drying in Tenax fencing.
Photo Sierran Farmer

Potatoes, if planted in March, will be ready to harvest this month. If the tops have died, dig up a few samples and see if the skins rub off, or if they have thickened up enough for storage. It’s fine to dig some for immediate use, but for long-term storage, they need thick skins. This usually takes two weeks after the tops die. You can hurry up the process by mowing the tops to bring growth to an end. Then wait two weeks and test them.  I wrote about potato harvest last year.

Tomatoes are ready to harvest outdoors now. Wait for the leaves to dry from rain or dew, before touching the plants. To minimize the spread of fungal diseases. Lightly press the bottom of the tomato to make sure it is soft enough to be fully ripe. Snap the tomato off at the knuckle, so that the plant gets the signal the fruit has gone, and will ripen more.

Harvesting Zephyr summer squash, wearing a long-sleeved shirt.
Photo by Brittany Lewis

Zucchini and summer squash in our climate need harvesting every day, if we are going to avoid blimps. Summer squash can be twisted off the plants, but zucchini need to be cut. The hairs on the leaves, combined with sweat, can cause unpleasant itchiness. Wear long sleeves or make special sleeves for this job that are not attached to any particular shirt. Make a casing and insert elastic around the top edge (and the bottom, if there are no cuffs). These sleeves can be bought, but everyone probably has an old shirt and could make their own.

We harvest every day to the fall frost (or beyond if we remember to cover that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights.).

From storage: carrots and potatoes.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics:

Hunting Hornworms on tomatoes

I have written about hunting hornworms and Dealing with hornworms on tomatoes . Learn to recognize hornworms and the signs of their activity, as well as their parasitic braconid wasp.

Having determined there is a hornworm in the vicinity, the next task is to find it. They can grow to be 4″ caterpillars. 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.

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 tobacco hornworm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tomato string weaving

(See my Mother Earth News blogpost How and when to string-weave tomatoes)

String-weaving (also known as basket-weaving or Florida string weaving) is an easy way to support lots of tomato plants. This method is ideal for long rows,. All you have to store over the winter are the stakes. No bulky cages or rolls of wire mesh. We have used it for all kinds of tomatoes, and some other crops.

The ATTRA publication Organic Tomato Production includes a comparison of different tomato support systems. You can also see this on the eXtension page Training Systems and Pruning in Organic Tomato Production

String-weaving comes equal-best or second best in almost all categories: yield, earliness, fruit size, quality, pest control and protection from sunburn. It is worst as far as labor cost, although it doesn’t seem so bad, as the labor is spread out through the season. Trellising with a high wire between posts, and strings to wind each plant around, comes out best for earliness, fruit size and pest control (but worst for cracking, and thus not so good for marketable yield). Cages are best for marketable yield (so people who only grow relatively few plants could choose that method). But caged tomatoes do poorly on earliness and fruit size. The cheapest support system is none at all – sprawing the plants on the ground. But the fruit quality and quantity is poor, (pests, rotting, cracking and sunburn reduce potential yields).

Tools for string weaving

Put tomato stakes in soon after planting, while the soil is still soft, and you can see where the drip tape is. We use 6’ (1.8 m) metal T-posts. Some people put an extra stake at an angle tied to the end stakes as a brace. Set one T-post after every two plants along the row. Our stringing tool made is a 2’ (30 cm) length of wood, with a hole drilled through near each end. Twine is threaded through one hole and back out the other. A length of plastic pipe could also be used (pipe doesn’t need holes drilled, as the twine can be threaded down through the pipe). The twine moves through the tool freely. The tool serves as an extension of the worker’s arm, to get the twine over tall stakes, and you can give it a quarter turn to pull the twine tight. For maximum efficiency, keep the tool in your hand all the time.

Tomato stake and Weave diagram from eOrganic

Our variation on string-weaving looks quite like the drawing from the Extension Service. We have a couple of tweaks that make string-weaving work even better. Our first trick is to park the bale of twine in a bucket at the beginning of the row and leave it there. No need to lug it with you! Stand between the working end of the twine and the slack being pulled out of the bucket – get yourself inside the loop when you start, to avoid tangles. The spare twine will be running out behind you as you work the first side of the row. You’ll use it for the return journey.

Tomato string-weaving step-by-step:

  1. When the plants are 12” (30cm) tall, tie the twine onto an end stake, about 8-10” (20-25 cm) above the ground.
String-weaving step 2: Using the stick tool to wrap twine round the post.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
  1. Pass the twine in front of two plants and the next stake and wrap the twine around the back of the stake, pull it tight, and twist the tool to help tighten it.
  2. Next, here’s our second trick: use the thumb or forefinger of your other (non-tool-holding) hand on the crossover to keep it tight, and loop the twine around the stake again, making sure that the second loop ends up below the first. This locks the twine so that if you let go, or later on a groundhog chews through your twine, the whole row doesn’t slacken.
Detail of string-weaving tomatoes: locking the twine by crossing the second wrap over the first.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
  1. Continue along the row to the end, then take the tool round to the other side wrapping the twine round the end post.
  1. Weave back along the other side of the same row, putting a row of twine at the same level as on the first side. You will need to flip the twine that was behind you on the first side over to your new working side as you need it. Once you reach the end, tie off the twine and cut it.

Close view of coming back on the second side of string-weaving.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

  1. You’ll see that you never actually wrap twine around a tomato plant, so there no injury from tight twine. The plants are simply held between two fences of twine that you “build” by making a new round once-a-week as the plants grow (every 8” (20 cm) up the stakes).
Showing the distance between rows of string-weaving.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
  1. At the end of the season, cut the twine each side of each post, and pull it out, then remove the stakes and till in the tomato plants.

Growing Great Sweet Corn

Silver Queen sweet corn almost ready to harvest.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

I wrote about success with planting sweet corn in May. here are tips for continuing success as your corn grows!

Caring for the Sweet Corn Crop

Generally, corn needs cultivating (hoeing and weeding) at least twice, once two weeks after sowing, and once at four weeks. Even better are four cultivations: one at 7 days, a second at 14, a third around 21 days (when the plants are 6-12” (15-30cm) tall) and finally one around 35 days when they are 18-20” (45-50cm) high. We use a walk-behind tiller, and follow up with hoeing and thinning. A wheel hoe can be a useful tool. After about 30 days, corn plants get too big to get machinery between the rows.

Another good resource is ATTRA Sweet Corn: Organic Production.

At tight spacing, adequate irrigation becomes more important. Never allow soil in corn plantings to dry out. More than 1” (2.5cm) per week may be needed for maximum productivity, although corn is more drought tolerant than some crops. The most important times for watering are silking (when the silks first become visible outside the husks) and ear-filling.

There used to be a belief that it helped production to remove the suckers that came from the base of the plant. This idea has been tested, and that practice has been found to damage plants and possibly even reduce yields. (Reports from Clemson in 2002 and Colorado State in 2004).

Flame-weeding can be used after planting, pre-emergence, or, with care, after the crop is 2” (5cm) tall, using a directed flame. Consult ATTRA Flame Weeding for Vegetable Crops

Sweet corn undersown with soybeans as a cover crop. We often use soybeans as a traffic-tolerant, nitrogen-producing cover crop that also deters weeds.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Undersowing Sweet Corn

No-till planting into strips tilled in a white clover living mulch sounds good but has been found tricky, especially during the grower’s learning curve. Jeanine Davis addresses this in NCSU’s Organic Sweet Corn Production. The clover may out-compete the corn, becoming invasive and hard to get rid of. Soil temperatures will be lower (a disadvantage in spring) and slugs and rodents may abound.

More successful is sowing a cover crop into the corn at the last cultivation, 28-35 days after emergence. We undersow with soybeans (oats and soybeans for our last planting). Although they don’t supply the highest amount of nitrogen, compared to other legumes, they are cheap, quick, somewhat shade tolerant and can withstand the foot traffic during harvesting. Other growers sow forage brassicas. Research has shown that this does not depress corn yields. The brassicas can be harvested for forage after the sweet corn harvest is finished. Undersowing with white clover is also possible.

Succession Planting of Sweet Corn

In order to have a continuous supply of sweet corn all summer, a bit of planning and record-keeping is called for so that each year’s plan can be fine-tuned. The easy and approximate method of getting a good supply is to sow more corn when the previous sowing has 3-4 leaves, or is 1-2” (2.5-5cm) tall. That will be about every two weeks. For a more even supply, sow several different varieties, with differing days to maturity, on the same date. We sow Bodacious (77 days), Kandy Korn (89 days) and Silver Queen (96 days) on the same day, and get over two weeks of harvests.

For fine-tuning for the most even supply, nothing beats real information about what happened, written at the time it happened. We have a Planting Schedule on a clipboard in the shed, and we write down actual sowing dates (next to the planned sowing date), and harvest start and finish dates. Having graphs of sowing and harvest dates for each crop has been very useful for planning effective planting dates. Use the Succession Planting method to calculate best planting dates and intervals for a continuous supply. We make six plantings: 4/26, 5/19, 6/6, 6/24, 7/7 and 7/16, to provide fresh eating every two weeks. The planting intervals are 23, 18, 18, 13, and 9 days. Because we plant three varieties, new corn comes in three times during each two weeks.

To calculate the last worthwhile sowing date, add the number of days to maturity and the length of the harvest window (7-14 days), and subtract this number from your average first frost date. For our 10/14 frost date, using an 80 day corn as an example, 80+7=87 days, brings us back to July 19 for our final sowing date. In practice, because corn matures faster in summer than in spring, this calculation gives you a little wiggle room in case the first frost is earlier than average. You could add a little more wiggle-room to be more sure. We make our last sowing on July 16.

Our sixth (and last) sweet corn planting showing our three-variety sequence. From the right: Bodacious, Kandy Korn and Silver Queen.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Fast-Maturing Sweet Corn Varieties

Early Maturing Sh2 Varieties: The Supersweet corn varieties are where most of the attention goes these days, and bicolor is preferred. In order of maturity (speediness in ripening): Catalyst XR (bicolor, 66days); Sweetness synergistic (bicolor, 68d); Kickoff XR (bicolor, 69d); Temptress synergistic (bicolor, 70d); Xtra-Tender 2171 (bicolor, 71 d); Nicole (white, 72d); Xtra-tender 20173 (bicolor, 73d); Signature XR (bicolor, 73d); Anthem XR (bicolor, 74d); Natural Sweet Organic (bicolor, 74d); Xtra-tender  3473 (white, 75d); SS2742 (Bicolor, 75d)

Early Maturing SU Varieties: Among yellow SU cultivars, Earlivee is the earliest to mature, at 58 days, and Seneca Horizon matures in 65 days. Sugar Pearl at 73d  is the earliest white cultivar to mature. Quickie, at 64 days, Double Standard (OP, 73d) and Butter and Sugar at 73 d, are the earliest bicolor cultivars to mature.

Early Maturing SE Varieties: Among yellow SE varieties, Precocious and Spring Treat mature earliest, at 66 and 67 days, respectively. Bodacious (yellow, 75d) is well worth the wait! Of white varieties, Spring Snow, at 65 days, is the earliest to mature. There are no bicolor SE varieties.

Early maturing SE+ varieties: Sugar Buns (yellow, 70 days); Trinity (bicolor, 68d)

Remember, if you decide to grow several kinds, not to mix sh2 kinds with anything else, or everything will taste starchy.

Sweet Corn Season Extension

Transplanting can provide an earlier harvest, as already mentioned. Clear plastic mulch is sometimes used to increase soil temperature and germination rate, and to conserve moisture, producing earlier maturing corn. The plastic is spread over the seeded beds and slit when the seedlings emerge. It can be cut and removed 30 days after emergence. Weed-free seed beds are needed for this method to work organically, and plastics disposal is an issue. Rowcover is another way to warm soils (and keep birds off).

Our second sweet corn planting on July 8, a few weeks away from harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pests and Diseases of Sweet Corn

Crows and other birds can be troublesome, removing the seed before it even grows. We leave the row-marking ropes in place (when hand sowing), or put some sticks and string in after machine sowing. Bird-scaring flash-tape may be even more effective. Rowcover would also work.

Some say interplanting corn with big vining squashes deters raccoons and other critters, but I think it deters crew too!

There are several caterpillar pests. An integrated organic approach to keeping pest numbers below economically damaging levels includes crop rotations, tillage, choosing resistant or tolerant varieties, encouraging beneficial insects, and ensuring adequate fertility and water. The next step is to scout for pests regularly, and take action as required.

Corn Ear Worm (CEW) is the most common pest. There may be six generations a year in the South. These caterpillars can bite – it’s just a nip, but can be a shock! A first line of defense is to choose varieties with tighter husks, which are harder for the worms to get into (Bodacious, Tuxedo, Silver Queen). Natural predators can be encouraged by planting alyssum or other small, open-flowered plants. You could buy Trichogramma wasps. The Zea-later was a tool developed for applying vegetable oil in the tip of each ear, mixed with Bt, 2-3 days past the full-brush stage of silking. Unfortunately  the treatment caused pollination problems and so it has fallen out of use. If pest numbers are not too high, you can simply cut or snap the ends off the ears.

Corn Earworm larvae come in many different colors. And they can bite!
(Photo: J. Obermeyer Purdue Extension)

European Corn Borer (ECB) drills through the whorl of leaves of the young plants, leaving a pattern of large holes as the plant develops. Bt and Spinosad will kill these, as will Trichogramma wasps. To reduce damage in future years, be sure to mow and disk old corn stalks into the soil at the first opportunity. Organically farmed soils have less of a problem with ECB.

Fall Army Worms (FAW) are also killed by Bt and Spinosad. These three pests (CEW, ECB, FAW) can be monitored in a single program, starting when the corn plants are at the whorl stage. At that point, scout for FAW, and treat if more than 15% of your plants are infested. At the pre-tassel and tassel stage scout for ECB and FAW. If infestation exceeds 15%, make a foliar spray with Bt or Spinosad. Check again in a week and repeat if needed. Then at the early silk stage, look for CEW and if needed, inject oil in the tips. If you also see ECB moths, apply Bt or Spinosad.

Cutworm can be a problem following sod, or if there are adjacent grassy areas. Bait them with bran, cornmeal or hardwood sawdust mixed with molasses and water – these baits swell inside the pests and kill them.

Corn Rootworms are best controlled by rigorous rotations.

For a more complete description of corn insect pests, see the 2004 Organic Insect Management in Sweet Corn by Ruth Hazzard & Pam Westgate. It includes good photos of the beasties. Cornell has a good Resource Guide for Organic Pest and Disease Management. Search under Crop Management Practices for Sweet Corn.  Be aware of the updated info on the pollination issues with applying oil in the ear tips, since these publications came out.

Corn Smut fungus (Ustilago maydis), known in Mexico as Huitlacoche, is edible at the stage when the galls are firm and tender. The flavor is sweetish. Silver Queen is the variety “best” at producing this fungus, should you wish to grow it. We carefully harvest the infected ears (or pieces of stem) into a special Smut Bucket, trying not to scatter the spores. Because none of us like this delicacy, we take it to the compost pile.

Young sweet corn plants in July (our fourth planting). And solar panels.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sweet Corn Harvest

Harvest corn before daybreak for best flavor, because the sugars manufactured in the plant the day before become concentrated during the night. We’re not that dedicated. We harvest ours in the morning, and hurry it to the walk-in cooler.

Harvest may start 18-24 days after half the ear silks show, if the weather has been reasonably warm. Judging corn’s ripeness is a skill, based on information from many of the senses. The first sign we look for is brown dead silks. If the ear has passed that test, we investigate further. All ears should look and feel plump and rounded to the tip. Each variety is a little different, so close attention is needed. Some varieties exhibit “flagging” of the ear, meaning it leans away from the stalk as it matures and gets heavier. New crew can test for ripeness by opening the side of the husk with thumb nails, and puncturing a kernel: the kernels should look filled-out and squarish, not round and pearly; the juice should be milky, not watery or doughy. The advantage of opening the side of the husks is that it is possible to close the gap if the ear is not ripe, without risk of collecting dew or rainfall. If the ear is ripe, we bend it downwards, give it a quarter-turn twist, and then pull up away from the plant.

We harvest every other day, which balances getting the amount we need with not spending more time than needed picking. Such a schedule can work well for CSA farms. Other growers could well need to harvest every day, if daily fresh corn is what your market needs. Leaving a three-day gap risks poor quality starchy ears and a lower total yield.

Take steps to keep the crop cool while harvesting. Never leave buckets of corn out in the sun. Even at room temperature, harvested OP ears lose half their sweetness in 24 hours.

After harvest, cool the corn quickly. Hydrocool if you have a large operation: drench or immerse the crop in near-freezing water. Otherwise, simply refrigerate and keep the corn cool until it reaches the consumer.

Some of this information comes from my book, Sustainable Market Farming.

Plentiful harvest of sweet corn and tomatoes.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Dealing with weeds

 

Galinsoga- a fast-growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil. Photo Wren Vile

Dealing with weeds

Why take action against weeds?

Weeds compete with crops for sunlight, water and nutrients, and can encourage fungal diseases by reducing airflow. Too-frequent cultivation to remove weeds can leave the soil more prone to erosion. Each tilling or deep hoeing stirs air into the soil and speeds combustion of organic matter. Most weeds respond well to nutrients, especially nitrogen. If you give corn too much nitrogen, even as compost, its productivity will max out and the weeds will use the remaining nutrients.

Remove weeds at their most vulnerable stage, or at the last minute before the seedpods explode —ignore weeds doing little damage.

Types of Weeds

  •   Annuals and perennials;
  • Stationary perennials (docks) and invasive perennials (Bermuda grass);
  • Cool-weather and warm-weather types;
  •  Quick-maturing and slow-maturing types;
  •   “Big Bang” types (pigweed) versus “Dribblers” (galinsoga).
Burdock is a large perennial weed with a huge root. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sustainable Weed Management

1.      Prevent weeds from germinating

  •  Grow vigorous crops adapted to the locality,
  •  Switch between spring and summer crops in rotation,
  •  Mulch or tarp to bury short-lived weed seeds
  • Plant promptly after cultivation, so weeds don’t get the head start,
  • Transplant rather than direct sowing, giving your crop a head start on the weeds,
  • Use close spacings, leaving less space for weeds,
  • Use drip irrigation rather than sprinklers, discouraging weed germination between the rows,
  •  Plant cover crops, including no-till systems,
  • Reduce tillage whenever you can, for example, by relay planting, where the new crop is planted while the previous crop is still in place, and prevent new weed seeds coming up to the surface.
Remove weeds before they set seed. Thistle seeds blow a long way on the wind.
Photo Wren Vile

2.      Reduce weed seeding

  • Practice timely cultivation, mowing, flaming, grazing by cattle, chickens, ducks, geese. As Margaret Roach says: “No matter what weed you are facing, if it’s flowering or setting seed now, be sure to behead it: mow it down, harvest the blooms for bouquets, or otherwise prevent a successful sexual reproduction cycle.”
  • Reduce weed seed banks to 5% of original levels by preventing weeds from seeding for 5 consecutive years.
  •  Use post-emergence organic weed killers: corn gluten, vinegar, flaming
Dandelions are another perennial weed with seeds that blow and spread easily. Photo Wren Vile

3.      Reduce weed seed viability

  •  Reckon that most weed emergence happens within two years of the seeds being shed.
  •  Encourage seed-eating birds, insects, worms, mice
  •  Small, short-lived seeds of weeds with no dormancy period, such as galinsoga, will almost all die within a year or two if they are buried a few inches. Till and mulch to bury short-lived weed seeds.
  •  Longer-lived seeds (pigweed, lambsquarters, velvetleaf) if buried, may remain viable and dormant for years – Leave such weed seeds on the soil surface, rather than tilling them in! Delaying tillage if weeds have already seeded generally reduces the number of seeds added to the long-term seed bank. Seeds lying on or near the soil surface are more likely to deteriorate or become food for seed predators than buried seeds,
  •  If they do not get eaten, dry out or rot, seeds on top of the soil are more likely to germinate than buried seeds, and you can take prompt action.
  • Use stale seed-beds – prepare bed a couple of weeks before planting, water as if you had planted. The day before planting your crop, hoe the surface shallowly to kill new weeds,
  •  Solarize weedy soil in hot weather to kill weed seeds – mow the weeds, cover the soil tightly with clear plastic, weighted down or dug in round the edges. Bryan O’Hara in No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture has popularized this technique, which makes a great use for used hoophouse plastic film. Solarizing can produce temperatures of 125˚F (50˚C) whereas temperatures under tarps (see section on perennial weeds) will be more like 110˚F (43˚C). You may need only 1-3 sunny days to kill crop residues with solarization. Cover crops and weeds may take longer to die. The heat will not go deep into the soil in that short time, and so more of the soil life will survive than with tarping.
Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

4.      Reduce the strength of perennial weed roots and rhizomes

  • Understand apical dominance: when a rhizome grows a green shoot, chemicals from that shoot prevent other nearby nodes on the same rhizome from sending up shoots.
  •  Act in a timely way – On long rhizomes, after a certain length, the dominance effect is too weak and another node can grow a shoot.
  •  Reduce the strength of perennial weed roots and rhizomes by frequent tilling or digging out.
  • Beware tilling invasive “traveling” perennial weeds once and thinking you’re done – When rhizomes are cut into pieces during tillage, the apical dominance is lost and each piece can grow a shoot of its own.
  •  Consider tarping: after tarping the plot for two summer weeks, 3-4 weeks in spring and fall, and two months or more in winter, dig out or pull up all the weed roots still alive.
  •  Next comes a counter-intuitive move (from Jesse Frost ): sow or transplant an intensive valuable crop in the areas with the worst perennial weed pressure. Of course this will motivate you to deal effectively with the weeds!
  • Pull out the pieces to dry on the surface – the depleted pieces of root or rhizome may die
  •  Or cultivate again when the new shoots have reduced the plant’s reserves (in the roots), but before they have grown enough to send energy back to the roots – it’s more effective than going almost daily after every sprig. Removing the shoots whenever the weeds reach the three- to four-leaf stage can be most effective.
  •  Late summer and fall turn out to be the best time for getting the upper hand over a wide range of common weeds, including Japanese knotweed, ragweed, Ailanthus, bindweed, curly dock and more. See Some weeds are best tackled late summer and fall Margaret Roach in A Way to Garden

Biointensive Integrated Pest Management

The weed strategies above follow the four steps of IPM: prevention, avoidance, monitoring and suppression.

1.      Prevention: Focus on restoring and enhancing natural balance and resilience to create healthy plants and soil, better able to withstand attacks. Maintain soil fertility, good drainage and soil structure; plant resistant, pest-tolerant, regionally adapted varieties; grow strong plants; practice good sanitation,

Hoe the small weeds in this bed of young lettuce soon, and the closing canopy of the lettuce will shade out most weeds after that. Photo Bridget Aleshire

2.      Avoidance: The next stage includes actions to reduce the chances of a weeds taking over. These actions are also known as physical controls. Physically remove weeds. Use good crop rotations, remove weed habitat, deter weeds. Provide habitat for weed seed predators.

3.      Monitoring:  regularly inspect your crops, find out when conditions are right for an outbreak of particular weeds. Be prepared. Identify your weeds and choose good strategies for each type. Decide when it is time to act. How to identify your weeds – online guides

4.      Suppression: When the prevention and avoidance strategies have been exhausted, control measures can be used to reduce damage of crops, while minimizing environmental risks. There are four types of sustainable bio-intensive control measures to choose from, starting with the least damaging to the wider environment:

  • a)      Biological control involves working to boost populations of existing resident weed seed predators. (For a few serious weed pests, like prickly pear, host-specific insect enemies are introduced)
  • b)      Microbial controls (bioherbicides) are plant-pathogenic fungi, bacteria, and viruses to kill weeds. Not common.
  • c)      Botanical control uses plant-based products for pest control. Examples include orange, clove and peppermint oils, and phytotoxic plant residues, such as root exudates from winter rye cover crops, and hay from sorghum, which inhibit germination of small seeds.
  • d)      Biorational controls (aka inorganic, mineral, controls) make use of manufactured products such as herbicidal soaps or strong vinegar.
Hoe weeds while they are small and you can be rid of those with short-lived seeds in a few years. Galinsoga and Outredgeous lettuce. Photo Pam Dawling

Critical weed-free period

One important factor is to observe the critical period of weed control for each crop. This is the period when crops are most affected by competition, whether from weeds, sister seedlings or those of an intercrop. Seedlings suffer more than transplants from being out-shaded. Transplants are soon past their critical weed-free period, perhaps half of it before you even set them out. As well as the critical period, take note of the severity of drop in yield for the particular crop. A lot of the information below comes from The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost, which I had the pleasure of reviewing recently.

  • Small salad crops like arugula, spinach and baby lettuce mix, really need to be weed-free throughout their growth. Apart from the risk of being smothered and producing poorly, there is the risk of including bits of recognizable weeds in your salads.
  • Bulb onions also benefit from being weed-free throughout growth. Like other narrow-leaved plants, they are poor competitors. Carrots also are very poor competitors – for most of us, the over-abundance of carrot seedlings in the row are as much of a threat as the weeds. Parsnips are similar, with the added challenge that they are slow to emerge.
  • Peas do best with no competition, although, because they grow vertically, they can do OK with a companion crop such as spinach (or weeds!) a short distance away.
    Hilling potatoes before the weeds get too big will deal with the weeds as well as giving the potatoes more growing space. Photo Wren Vile

    Potatoes, weeds and standing water. Until the soil drains, the potatoes cannot be hilled, and the weeds here are already large. The yield will be reduced by weeds competing with the potatoes.  Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Potatoes need 1-8 weeks after emergence free from weeds, although small weeds are not a problem and the process of hilling potatoes (needed to provide growing space) effectively deals with weeds.
  • Beets need 2-3 weeks after emergence weed-free from direct-sowing. My experience is that beets are their own worst enemy, and the clusters of seedlings that emerge from each seed-ball should be singled as soon as possible. Yields can easily drop 1-5% with small-average weeds. Turnips also need to be competition-free for the first few weeks after emergence.
  • Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale and most Asian greens need 2-3 weeks after transplanting free of weeds.
  • Sweet potatoes need 2-6 weeks free of competition after planting. Because it gets hard to wade in and pull weeds later, we try to keep them weed-free.
Garlic beds under a stormy sky. Keep alliums free of weeds.
Photo Wren Vile
  • Garlic needs 3-7 weeks from emergence free of weeds. If you plant in the fall, start counting in early spring when weeds start to grow again. Like most alliums, the narrow vertical leaves make it a weak competitor.
  • Basil, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, lettuce and many other crops need four weeks from transplanting free of weeds. Be careful not to damage squash roots when removing weeds.
  •  Tomatoes need 5-6 weeks after transplanting free from competition, although they are fairly strong competitors later, and we routinely transplant our hoophouse tomatoes down the center of a bed of salad greens, progressively harvesting the greens over the next month. We have noticed problems only if we leave other crops too close for too long. Always prioritize the well-being of the new crop!
  • Peppers need 5-10 weeks after transplanting free from competition, although the drop in yield is small (5%)
  •  Fava beans need four weeks from emergence free of weeds
  •  Direct sown kale needs 6 weeks from emergence weed-free.
  • Okra requires 6-8 weeks after sowing weed-free. If you transplant okra as we do, half that period will be over by transplanting date.
  • Beans are a crop that can generally out-compete weeds (losing only 3% yield from competition), but keeping the rows clean until the beans flower (about 6 weeks from sowing) will maximize yields.
  • Corn needs about 7 weeks from seeding free of weeds (until there are 6 leaves).
  • Eggplant calls for 8 weeks from transplanting free of competition.
  •  Leeks, another weakly competitive allium, need 12 weeks post emergence weed-free. If, like us, you transplant leeks at about 10 weeks after sowing, this translates to hoeing the beds of transplanted leeks a couple of weeks of transplanting.

Flameweeding

I won’t say more about this here. Click the link to read previous posts.

Mulches

Mulches are a big asset in weed control. Organic mulches also add biomass to the soil. Remember not to use organic mulches around warm weather crops for their first month, as they need warm soil to grow well, and insulating mulches keep the soil cold.

See our experience with Biodegradable plastic mulch

Read Organic Farming Has A Plastic Problem. One Solution Is Controversial about the controversy surrounding biodegradable plastic in Organic Farming

Cover crops

Summer cover crops smother emerging weeds, prevent weed seed germination, between a spring food crop and a summer or fall one. Winter cover crops smother emerging winter annual weeds. Good cover crops for this purpose: sorghum-sudangrass, pearl millet, winter rye, wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat, brassicas (beware – rotation, bugs), lupins, red clover, subterranean clover, berseem clover, soybeans, cowpeas.

Ida Gold mustard (Sinapis alba) contains a gluscosinolate, ‘sinalbin’, a non-volatile compound that has shown the ability to inhibit weed seed germination. Tillage radish has a similar effect. The cover crop needs to be mowed and tilled in. Solarization after incorporating mustard is known as biofumigation.

Cover crops also improve the soil for crop production.

Iron and Clay southern peas as cover crop in the hoophouse, smothering weeds.
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops for June

Farao early cabbage
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops for June

I’ve chosen 14 Workhorse Crops (including two pairs) to focus on at the beginning of every month, until April 2022: These are crops that we can rely on under a wide range of conditions. Some Workhorse Crops are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops”, some are especially profitable (for those growing for market), and watermelons are the circus pony among the workhorses, I admit, but we all need fun!

I intend for this series to help growers who want to become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as we emerge from sheltering at home and expand our lives again. Don’t give up growing your own food, just choose some less time-consuming ways to do it.

Our May 5 sowing of bush beans on June 30.
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops to Plant in June

June is another busy planting month here in central Virginia. Next month the heat strikes hard, and the daylight starts to get shorter, but this month we are still climbing the hill of the year. Ten of our 14 Workhorse Crops can be planted in June.

Beans: We sow bush beans every few weeks to keep up supplies of tender beautiful beans. See the Special Topic section for info about Succession Planting, to help you determine when and how often to sow beans and other short-lived warm weather crops. Also see the Special Topic section to read how we control Mexican Bean Beetles that used to destroy our bean plantings. Click this link to read about soaking bean seed, using inoculant, sowing through biodegradable plastic mulch using a jig, sowing sunflowers in our bean rows as place-markers when harvesting.

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

We sow carrots in late February, then twice in March, once a month in April and May and after that we’d like to not sow more until the beginning of August. Carrots grown in hot weather don’t taste that good: there’s little sweetness and too many terpenes (the compound that in small quantities gives carrots their distinctive carrotiness, but can be overpowering if too strong.) But home-grown hot weather carrots are still better than jet-lagged travel-weary carrots from afar. You could use shadecloth over the beds. If we have not grown enough carrots by the end of May to see us through to October, we sow in June, and even July if we must.

Carrots under shade cloth in summer.
Photo Pam Dawling

Chard: The perfect insurance crop! We use chard for fresh greens in summer, when spring kale, collards, broccoli and cabbage have long bolted and been turned under so we can plant something else. We transplant our chard into a hay mulch in late April. Organic mulches help keep the soil cool during hot weather, so are very helpful for leafy greens. This crop will be in the ground until mid-winter, and mulch will keep back most of the weeds.

Chard provides leafy greens all summer whenever you need them, and you can ignore it when you have plenty of other vegetables! As a biennial, chard will not bolt the first year (unless stressed by lack of water).  I’ve noticed the red chards bolt more easily than the green ones. I suppose red crops are a bit stressed already, as they are short of chlorophyll, compared to the green ones, making photosynthesis harder work.

Potatoes: I wrote a special series on potatoes last year. Click the link to access the whole series, starting with planting in April. Here we plant in March and June. For our June-planted potatoes, we pre-sprout the seed potatoes for just two weeks (shoots grow quicker in warm weather than in early spring). To protect the planted potatoes from the summer heat, we hill immediately after planting, even though we can’t see the rows! Then we unroll big round hay bales down the field to cover all the soil. Potato shoots grow strongly, and can make it up through the extra height of the hills/ridges and through the 3” (7.5 cm) of hay. After about 16 days, we walk through the field, investigating spots where there is no sprout. We call this task “Liberating the Trapped Shoots”. Often the problem is just an overthick clump of mulch, and the shoot will be quite literally trapped (and completely white). We simply let he shoot see the light, and redistribute the over-thick mulch.

June-planted potato emerged through hay mulch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sweet corn: we make 6 sowings of sweet corn, to harvest from July 4 to mid-October. We are well into corn-planting time, which continues until mid-July, when there are not enough warm days left in the season to mature another sowing. Remember: don’t plant a mixture of different corn genotypes, and don’t plant Indian corn, popcorn or any kind of flint or dent corn within 600′ (180 m) of your sweet corn.  This leads to very disappointing starchy corn. We grow only sweet corn in our garden, to avoid this problem.

Sweet potatoes: I wrote a lot about planting sweet potatoes in 2020. Wait for the soil to warm before planting out your sweet potato slips, they don’t grow well if too cold. We plant ours a couple of weeks after the last frost, around the time we transplant peppers and okra. In early June, we replace any casualties, if needed, to fill out the rows again. This year we have a beautiful looking patch, with rows of healthy plants on ridges, with biodegradable plastic mulch. We have a solar-powered electric fence to deter the deer. My latest worry is groundhogs, who can slip right under the electric fence. They haven’t yet, but I expect they will, if we don’t catch them first.

Sweet potatoes on biodegradable plastic mulch, with solar electric fence charger.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tomatoes: In mid-June we plant a bed of late tomatoes, to boost the yields when the maincrop beds start to pass their peak. We planted our main crop tomato beds at the very beginning of May, and they’re looking quite good.

Here’s a post about planting tomatoes in our hoophouse. We use the same techniques in the hoophouse and outdoors. We transplant one row of tomatoes down the centerline of a 4ft (1.2 m) bed, 2ft (60 cm) apart. Once the weather has settled so that we’re confident we won’t need rowcover any more, we stake and stringweave. We install a steel T-post every two plants (4ft /1.2 m) apart and start stringweaving when the plants are about 12ins (30 cm) tall. I’ll say more about stringweaving next month.

Watermelons: As I explained in May, I gave watermelon a “Circus Pony” place among the workhorses! They’re not easy, therefore not reliable, but they provide so much pleasure when they do grow well. We transplant our watermelons, to get ripe ones as early as possible.

Watermelons grow very well on black plastic mulch, which warms the soil as well as keeping weeds at bay. The first year we switched from using hay mulch to biodegradable plastic mulch, we were astounded to get ripe melons a full month earlier!

If you want to use organic mulches for warm weather crops, don’t do it immediately. Wait till the soil warms through. This year we made that mistake, then we had late cold weather and the transplants all died. We’re going to experiment with station-sowing seeds directly in the gaps. Station-sowing is a technique of putting several seeds in the ground at each spot (station) where you want one plant to grow. Rather than making a furrow and sowing a row that needs thinning later. It’s a good technique for remedial work (ahem!), or if growing very expensive seeds, or for crops you are not familiar with, such as parsnips. You see several seedlings all the same and can be pretty sure it’s the thing you planted.

Watermelons can be planted from seeds when the ground has warmed to at least 70°F (21°C). On average, it takes about 85 days for Crimson Sweet seedlings to mature and produce ripe fruit. This is late for us to sow watermelons, and we certainly won’t get early ones this year, but we could get them in September. Better than none.

I described transplanting watermelons last month, if you need that info.

Crimson Sweet watermelon.
Photo Nina Gentle

Winter squash are a true workhorse, and can still be sown here early in June, provided we don’t sow the slow-maturing ones like the gigantic Tahitian Butternut. Aim for harvesting in September and October and count back to see how many days you have until you want to harvest. Then choose the varieties that will have enough time. You can also transplant winter squash if you need to. We did this once when our fields flooded. It worked out fine.

We mostly grow Butternuts, Moschata types that store best. This is the type to focus on if you want squash with no damage from borers or cucumber beetles. The tougher stems are better able to repel invaders. They need warm growing temperatures above 60°F (16°C).

See last month’s post for more about sowing winter squash, and for other kinds of winter squash, such as some Maxima squashes that store quite well and have relatively high resistance to squash bugs compared to others in this group, and Pepo squashes, suitable for storing a few weeks only

A bee pollinating squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Zucchini (courgettes) and summer squash: another crop type that we succession sow, to get a continuous supply. More about succession planting below in the Special Topic section. We make five or six plantings, each one half yellow squash (Zephyr, Gentry) and half zucchini (TenderGrey, Noche, Golden Glory). We grow our earliest squash in the hoophouse, setting out transplants at the beginning of April. Our first outdoor crop is also from transplants. After that, the soil is warm (60°F/15.5°C) and we direct sow. The time from sowing to harvest is only around 42-54 days.

After transplanting or sowing, we hoop and cover the row with insect netting (rowcover works if it has no big holes). We have many bugs that like these plants, especially the striped cucumber beetles, so we keep the rows covered until female flowers appear. At that point we need the service of the pollinators, unless the squash is parthenocarpic (sets fruit without pollination). We pack away the covers, hoe and thin the squash to 24” (60 cm). It would be better to thin sooner, but we rarely find the time.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in June

We have mnemonics for harvesting: Monday, Wednesday and Friday might be the crops beginning with the plosive Ps and Bs: peas, beans, beets, broccoli, blueberries etc. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays would be the crops beginning with the hard K and G sounds: kale, corn, carrots, collards, cabbage, garlic scapes etc.

Other crops like asparagus, lettuce, cucumbers, summer squash and zucchini we harvest 6 days a week. Some, like cabbage, we harvest twice a week.

Asparagus can be harvested here until early in June. Every day for the 8-week harvest period, snap off at ground level all the spears above a certain length. We chose 7” (18 cm). This task is best done first thing in the morning, when the spears are crisp. Daily harvest will also remove asparagus beetle eggs, controlling the pest level.

Cabbage is ready here from late May until mid-July. We store enough to feed us until we start harvesting fall cabbage.  An early sowing of fast-maturing varieties (like Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield which can be ready in only 60 days) can be followed by harvests of slower varieties. When a cabbage is ready for harvest, the head is firm and the outer leaf on the head (not the more horizontal wrapper leaves) will be curling back. For cabbage to store to eat over the summer, cut with a strong knife and set it upside down on the nest of leaves to dry a little. Come back along the row with a net or plastic bag and gather up the storage quality cabbages to refrigerate. Gather any lower quality cabbages to eat soon. If you would like to get another harvest from the same plants, cut criss-cross into the stump. Small “cabbagettes” will grow and can be used raw or cooked. They won’t store.

Carrots can be ready about three months after sowing in spring, although you can get thinnings for salads sooner. Read here about harvesting carrots.

Chard is ready for harvest as soon as you decide the leaves are big enough. Simply snap or cut off some outer leaves and stand them in a bucket with a little water until you cook them. For a sustainable rate of harvesting with chard, always leave at least 6 of the inner leaves to grow.

Garlic harvest time will be soon if not already. I wrote about garlic last week.

Kale and collards can be harvested until they are bolting, as long as the flavor is acceptable. Our spring-planted ones are not bolting yet, but the fall-planted ones were tilled in a couple of weeks ago.

New potatoes could be dug here during June, if you don’t mind reducing the final yield. The flavor of new potatoes, with their delicate skins, is very special. As a child, I ate them boiled with mint, and topped with some butter.

Tomatoes start to ripen this month. Our hoophouse tomatoes have started to yield a small amount of Glacier, Stupice, Sungold and Amy’s Apricot.

 

Zucchini harvest.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Zucchini and summer squash are ready from the hoophouse early sowing since about May 20.  We are now (June 2) harvesting our first planting of outdoors. We harvest every day to the fall frost (or beyond if we remember to cover that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights.).

From storage: carrots, potatoes,

 Workhorse Crops Special Topic:

Succession planting, and Mexican bean beetles

Succession planting is a topic I have often presented at workshops, so rather than give you more words, I’m giving you the slideshow from 2019. Towards the end it includes information about dealing with Mexican bean beetles.