Workhorse Crops for May

Young bush bean plants.
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops for May

Workhorses crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions, including weather, soil, date and other variables. Some are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops” like chard that stand in your garden until you need to harvest them, some are especially profitable (for those growing for market).

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

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

Workhorse Crops to Plant in May

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

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

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

Multicolored chard. Wren Vile

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

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

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

Our first sweet corn of the season.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young squash plant.
Pam Dawling

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

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

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

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

Summer squash plants under insect netting.
Pam Dawling

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

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

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

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in May

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons

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

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

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

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

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

Harvesting garlic scapes in May
Photo by Wren Vile

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

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

Zucchini and summer squash from mid-May,

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

Workhorse Crops Special Topic: Deciding Which Vegetable Crops to Grow

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

Deciding Which Vegetable Crops to Grow, Pam Dawling

Vegetable Seed Germination Temperatures and Phenology

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

Vegetable Seed Germination Temperatures

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

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

Vegetable seed germination

 

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

Soil Thermometers

Soil thermometer.
Photo by Green Living/Taylor

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

Harbinger weeds of spring and fall

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

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

Chickweed seedling.
Photo from UC IPM Weed Gallery

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

Phenology

I have a post about phenology here.You can read some of the details of when to plant by natural signs. For instance, we sow sweet corn when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. I got excited this past weekend (April 10) when I saw wind-driven twigs on the ground with oak leaves definitely bigger than squirrels’ ears. But they were Red Oak, not White Oak.

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

Phenology Record

 

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

Phenology records are a useful guide to when to plant certain crops, and a way to track how fast the season is progressing right where you are. Phenology involves recording when certain wild and cultivated flowers bloom, seedlings emerge, or various insects are first seen. These natural events can substitute for Growing Degree Day calculations. Certain natural phenomena are related to the accumulated warmth of the season (rather than, say, the day-length), and by paying attention to nature’s timetable you will be in accord with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.

Keeping your own phenology record will help build resilience in the face of climate change. Ours might be interesting to you, but unless you live in central Virginia, you can’t use our dates. You do need to make your own. This can be a great home-schooling project, or a crew I-Spy competition, or a calming end-of-day walk around your gardens.

Root Crops in April – the Hungry Gap

Young Cylindra beets in early May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in April

We are in cold-hardiness zone 7a, with an average last frost of 4/29. Those in other climate zones can study our Root Crops in May or Root Crops in March for information more useful in their area.

Outdoors we can sow  carrots #4 & #5, parsnips, radishes #2, (last date 4/15, sow on the shoulders of a newly transplanted lettuce bed to save space), beets (last date 4/15, hand sown or with an EarthWay seeder Chard plate, 2 or 3 passes. 1 cup sows 360 ft/110m)

Here we can plant potatoes anytime in April.

It is too late for us to sow any root crops in the hoophouse. (Besides, we want tomatoes!)

Having good stored crops like these beets will feed you through the Hungry Gap.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in April

As in January, February and March in central Virginia, in most of April there are still no roots to harvest outdoors except overwintered parsnips and maybe carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish.  Radishes from the first outdoor sowing will be ready at the end of April. We can usually harvest radishes until the end of May. Our hoophouse radishes usually finish in early April. By then it is hot and any remaining radishes bolt.

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

This is the Hungry Gap (see Special Topic for April below)

Colorado Potato beetle late stage larva
Photo Pam Dawling

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in April

  • If you are growing your own sweet potato slips, cut 6-12” (15-30cm) slips daily and stand them in water. Once a week, plant rooted slips in 4” (10cm) flats.
  • Hill up potatoes when 6” (15cm) high. Cover half the vine. Repeat after 2 weeks. This deals well with weeds and gives the potatoes more soil to grow into.
  • Potato beetles: Use Spinosad [or Neem] once larvae are seen, if there are more than 50 adults/50 plants or more than 200 larvae/100 plants. If you have fewer, you can leave them alone. Spinosad: Spray when bees are not flying (early morning or late evening.) Shake well, 1-4 Tbsp/gall (1fl.oz=2Tbsp=30ml.) Approx 8-30 ml per liter. Repeat in 6 days. Clean and triple rinse the sprayer. Do not flush Spinosad into creeks or ponds.
  • Thin and weed carrots.
  • Mow cover crop mixes in late vegetable plots when rye or wheat heads up, to help legumes develop.
  • Take rowcover from turnips that were sown 3 or more weeks earlier, to use on newer and more tender crops.
  • Till beds you’ll plant in a week or two, as heavy rain may prevent tilling close to sowing time. My ideal is to till as deep as needed ahead of time, then do a superficial tilling or scuffle hoeing the day before planting. This gives the best weed control.
  • Spread compost on beds you’ll plant in 3 weeks or so, and till in the compost when the soil is not too wet, not too dry.
  • If exposed to 10 consecutive days below 45°F (7°C), celeriac will bolt.
  • Store spring and fall seeds (spinach, peas, beets) in a cool place for the summer.
Vates kale outdoors. An oleracea type, Vates is very cold-hardy.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Special Root Crop Topic for April in Central Virginia: the Hungry Gap

What is the Hungry Gap?

The Hungry Gap happens in temperate climates with four seasons. In winter the short day-length reduces plant growth, and when it’s cold, maybe damp, windy, and overcast, the rate of crop growth drops further. The Hungry Gap is the annual period of the shortfall in local fruit and vegetables. April is the leanest month of the year in northern temperate climates, and the period can extend from January to May. This may be a factor in the origin of the 40 days of Lent.

Spring is not the time of overflowing bounty you might expect – leaves are growing, but not much else. Depending on your particular climate, there may be some vegetables that are winter-hardy. Almost every vegetable lover yearns for more variety than that!

In the spring, any remaining winter vegetables are getting ready to bolt (produce flowers and seeds rather than more leaves). Growers and gardeners are enthusiastically sowing and transplanting new crops, but planting too early would be a sad mistake and it takes time before those new crops can be harvested. That gap between the last of the winter crops and the first of the early spring crops, is called the Hungry Gap.

It’s not a familiar term these days, because importing produce from warmer climates hides the reality. Vegetable consumption in much of the Western hemisphere has shifted from Medieval (leaves and roots) to Mediterranean (“ratatouille vegetables” and salads). Importing or long-distance hauling demands more energy usage, as does the refrigeration they often require in transit.

Also there has been a practice of growing vegetables with artificial heat and light. This is not ecological, as use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change. The food sector accounts for 30% of global energy consumption and produces about 20% of GHG emissions (see the 2011 FAO report). Most of this energy consumption comes from oil and gas in the form of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, on-farm machinery and food processing.

Sweet Potatoes in storage.
Photo Pam Dawling
Sustainable Ways to Bridge the Hungry Gap

How did people survive the hungry gap in times gone by, and what can we learn from those strategies? Eating in the hungry gap used to be both hard and uninspiring – a restricted diet with few options. Adding options involves advance planning and advance work.

  1. Use stored food, such as root crops, winter squash and pumpkins
  2. Preserve fruits and vegetables from other seasons. Consider jams, pickles, canning in jars, freezing, drying, salting and fermenting (think sauerkraut)
  3. Grow more winter-hardy crops that start regrowth early in the spring, and may be harvestable during the winter. Consider covering the rows with rowcover or polyethylene low tunnels.
  4. Grow more perennial crops, such as asparagus, rhubarb, sea kale and sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima, wild beet). Although they take several years to establish, they will then yield earlier in the year than crops grown from seed in spring. Asparagus and rhubarb provide new flavors early in the year and signal the change to come.

    Asparagus in early April.
    Credit Wren Vile
  5. Sow fast-growing cold-hardy crops as early as possible after the winter solstice, for example spring leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collards, fast cabbage varieties, and lettuce.
  6. Add crop protection in the form of rowcovers, low polyethylene tunnels (cloches), caterpillar tunnels, high tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels) to create a warmer environment, trapping heat and humidity and warming up the soil, providing earlier harvests. Protect early sowings of quick crops, like radishes, arugula, land cress, salad greens, and also the first few weeks of newly planted kale, collards, spinach, mizuna, pak choy).
  7. Forage sustainably for edible wild greens as a spring ‘tonic’, even if not a major item in your diet. The strong flavors provide a welcome change after repetitive winter vegetables, and a useful top-up to the supply of produce as stores run low. Spring is one of the best seasons for foraging, but you do have to reliably identify what you’re picking, so get yourself a good guide book or phone app. Ramps, nettles, violets, chickweed, dandelion, garlic mustard, and lamb’s quarters are some of the many wild greens available in spring. See Rustic Farm Life: Wild Spring Greens You Should Be Eating

    Ruby chard.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons
  8. Maximize the number of annual and biennial crops you grow that are in season during the Hungry Gap. Some are mentioned already. Here are more ideas: chard, globe artichokes, herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, kale (one variety is called “Hungry Gap” because it crops during this period. It was introduced to UK agriculture during WWll in 1941), leeks. If your winter climate is mild enough (zone 8 or 9): over-wintered Purple sprouting broccoli, and spring greens (immature close-spaced dark-green cabbages).

    Brassica oleracea ‘Hungry Gap’ – kale
    Photo Chiltern Seeds, UK
  9. Indoor gardening. Grow sprouts and microgreens. These don’t take much advance planning and can perk up a winter or spring meal. Microgreens grow in compost or on special “blankets”, but sprouts are generally grown in jars or trays. Pea shoots are an easy one to start with, and you can use dried peas from the supermarket. When sprouting it is important that you buy organic seeds, to be sure that they have not been treated with any chemicals. Rinse your sprouts twice a day, and keep everything clean.

Read more about the Hungry Gap

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbZfTAYDA88

https://theunconventionalgardener.com/blog/what-is-the-hungry-gap/

https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/spring-plate-eating-hungry-gap/

https://www.farmdrop.com/blog/hungry-gap-seasonal-british-produce/

This is the last post in the monthly series on root crops. You can see them all here:

Root Crops in May

Root Crops in June

Root Crops in July

Root Crops in August

Root Crops in September

Root Crops in October

Root Crops in November

Root Crops in December

Root Crops in January

Root Crops in February

Root Crops in March

Workhorse Crops for the Month

Next month I will start a new monthly series. Workhorses are crops that are reliable under a wide range of conditions, including weather, soil, date and other variables. Some are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops” like chard that stand in your garden until you need to harvest them. Part of my motivation for this series is to help all the “Covid-steaders” who started growing food during the pandemic and want to up their game without investing a lot more time. Part is to help established gardeners and growers who need to make a living while dealing with the changes the past year has brought to their markets and to our climate. We need some easier days!

 

Root Crops in March

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

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in March

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

Spring Start-up Plan

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

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

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

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

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

Potatoes

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

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

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

PART ONE: Planting potatoes (April)

PART TWO: Growing potatoes (May)

PART THREE: Potato pests and diseases (June)

PART FOUR: Harvesting potatoes (July)

PART FIVE: Storing potatoes (August)

PART SIX: Planning to grow potatoes again (September)

Beets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Cylindra beets in early May.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in March

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

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

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

A crate of overwintered Danvers 126 carrots

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

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

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in March

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

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

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

Collards bolting in late March.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

Root Crops in February

 

Large Smooth Prague celeriac. (Currently sold out Feb 2021)
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in February

We sow no root crops in our hoophouse in February. It’s too late for radishes or turnips. If you are in a place colder or darker than winter-hardiness subzone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C), see Root Crops in January.

If the soil outdoors is dry enough and not frozen, we spread compost on the raised beds we plan to plant in February and March, and till in the compost. Root crops that we sow outdoors here in February include carrots #1 and turnips in mid-February, and carrots #2 and radishes in late February. It’s true not much growing happens in February, but it helps us if we are able to get some crops planted early, leaving us more capacity for other crops once those are in the ground. And if the soil isn’t dry enough, we just do those jobs as soon as we can. We would hate to miss an opportunity!

Carrot Bed Prep

One of our many carrot beds, looking good.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Carrots do very poorly with competition from weeds or too many other carrots. You can make use of the Stale Seedbed Technique, preparing the bed ahead of time, and flaming or hoeing one or more flushes of weeds as they germinate. I’ll do a separate blogpost on flame-weeding soon, as I have too much info to squeeze in here. It works so well, it feels like cheating!

Carrots are small seeds, needing a fine tilth (small soil particle size and good texture – not likely to crust or blow away).  Good information on crop spacing for maximum yields, or biggest vegetables is in an out of print book, The Complete Know and Grow Vegetables by JKA Bleasdale, PJ Salter, and others. For maximum total yield of carrots, they recommend 1.5” x 6” (4 x 15cm). You get medium sized carrots. For early carrots go with 4 x 6” (10 x 15cm) to minimize competition and get rapid growth. If you want to have rows more than 6” (15cm) apart, calculate the area of these optimum spacings, then divide by your chosen row space. For example, if your rows are 12” (30cm) apart, the carrots can be as close as 0.75’ (2cm) if total yield is more important than individual size, or 2” (5cm) for fast early carrots. We do five rows in a 4 ft (1.2m) bed, so the rows are about 10” apart, with the outer rows 4” (10cm) from the bed edge.

Young Carrot Plants After Thinning. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Carrot Thinning and Weeding

Remember to thin carrots as soon as you can see them well enough to do so. We usually hoe between the rows first, then crawl along thinning and weeding. It does take time! But you won’t get good carrots without thinning, unless you either have a precision-seeder that drops one seed per inch, or pelleted seed which you can sow at one per inch. Precision seeders like the Jang are expensive, but worthwhile if you need to use it every week. Pelleted seed costs more than raw seed, and its big advantage is traded off for two other disadvantages: The soil has to be kept well-watered until germination or else the clay coating will imprison the seed forever, and the seed does not store for long – don’t keep any over for next year.

Greenhouse Root Crop Sowings for Transplants

The only root crops we ever transplant are celeriac and kohlrabi (a stem vegetable really, not a root). I have transplanted many things and I am skeptical of books saying this or that can’t be transplanted, but not beets or rutabagas, which I hear people transplant as soil blocks or plugs. So try it if you think it will help.

Celeriac

Flats of celeriac seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We have grown both Diamante (100 days from transplanting) and Large Smooth Prague (110d), and strongly prefer Diamante, as it seems to us to be more tolerant of warm weather, less prone to rot, and easier to clean. Several growers say that Diamante and Brilliant are virtually indistinguishable.

This crop likes rich soil with lots of organic matter, some shade from mid-day and afternoon sun, and ample water without sitting in waterlogged soil. We make sure to choose beds in a shadier part of the garden. Celeriac can rot if too damp, so keep it weeded and remove some of the lower leaves to improve airflow. A pH 5.8-6.7 is ideal. Celeriac can benefit from seaweed as a foliar spray, or side-dressing with compost during the long growing season.

Celeriac requires long steady growth, and the challenge is to prevent checks to growth. The Virginia climate is on the warm side for celeriac, it prefers cooler areas, but we have good success if we pay attention at a few critical times. Celeriac can tolerate frost quite well, so there is no hurry to harvest in the fall.

Sow seeds 1/8″(3mm) deep, and keep the soil surface moist. The minimum germination temperature is 40°F/5°C, and the optimal range 59–70°F/15-21°C. Germination is slow, typically 14 to 21 days, and it takes 10-12 weeks to grow to transplant size, so start in plenty of time. We sow in open flats, then spot out (prick out) into deeper flats. We sow February 10, which is about 10 weeks before our last frost date. Celeriac can be sown from 67 days before the last frost date to 184 days before the first fall frost date, but you don’t get large roots unless you have plenty of growing time.. If your climate includes long chilly springs, I’d suggest starting 12 weeks before the last frost date.

Emergence takes at least 12 days at 59°F/15°C and 7 days at 68°F/20°C. The ideal temperature is 68°F/20°C day, and 59°F/15°C at night. The fluctuating temperatures, with nights cooler than days by 9°F/5°C, help speed germination. Another factor when choosing germination temperature to aim for, is that at 59°F/15°C, only 40% of the seeds produce seedlings, compared to 97% at 68°F/20°C.

Celeriac should not be hardened off by reducing temperatures, as that can cause them to bolt. More than about 9 night temperatures below 55°F/12°C will cause bolting. Plants can have their watering reduced to help them get ready for the big outdoors. Use rowcovers if a cold spell arrives after you have planted them out, or if you know cold weather is likely to return. Falling apple blossom is a phenology sign that conditions are suitable.

See Root Crops in May for transplant info

See SESE’s Celery & Celeriac Growing Guide for growing information.

Kohlrabi

Harvested kohlrabi, Early White Vienna and Early Purple Vienna.
Photo McCune Porter

Kohlrabi is very easy to grow, treat it just like cabbage or kale.

It can be direct-seeded, but for an early crop, especially if you live in a climate like ours where spring turns into summer very quickly, use transplants. We don’t grow a lot, only 180 feet (55m) in total for 100 people. We also grow kohlrabi in the fall, transplanting bare root transplants from nursery seedbeds around August 3. We grow twice as much in fall as spring, because we can store them for winter.

We have grown both Early White Vienna and Early Purple Vienna. Growing both provides for pretty harvests. We sow February 8 at 4 seeds/inch (0.5 cm apart) in open seed flats, aiming to have the plants spotted out, hardened off and transplanted outdoors with rowcover on March 13. Fast work!

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in February

Hakurei turnips harvested late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

As for January, in central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in February except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish.  We do have horseradish, but not the others. Of course, you can only dig up root crops if the ground is not frozen!

We have had outdoor night temperatures of 16°F/-9°C and 12°F/-11°C. This winter we have some carrots “growing” in the fresh air and some late-sown beets under rowcover. I don’t think we’ll get roots from the beets, but the leaves might make a nice change from brassicas as cooking greens.

In the hoophouse our radishes #3 (sown October 30) will come to an end by 2/1. Our #4 radishes will get harvested this month. Our #5 radishes, sown 12/23, will feed us from then until around April 7

We still have some of our first turnips (sown around October 13) until mid-February, and they have reached a really good size, thanks to early thinning. This month we can harvest the second sowing (October 25). We thinned turnips #2 in early January. They are looking good too.

Red Round turnips in our hoophouse in late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have not yet needed to unroll our inner rowcovers in the hoophouse. We wait until we expect it to get down to 8°F (-13°C) outdoors, as we like to avoid extra work!

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in February

Potatoes stored in crates in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle

Check stored vegetables

Stored crops need to be checked for decay at least once a month, preferably once a week now the days are getting longer and the temperatures will get warmer. From storage, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips, if we grew them.

Special Root Crop Topic for February in Central Virginia

Wrap up the winter planning

Our garden planning wraps up by mid-February, with all the budgets, crew selection and shift decisions (afternoons in cold weather, mornings in hot weather –  we’re mostly half-day gardeners, with one or two stalwart all-day workers)

Order summer cover crop seeds

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

For early spring, if we find an area without a winter cover crop and we realize we won’t plant it with a vegetable crop for at least 8 weeks, we sow oats. They will smother weeds and add organic matter to the soil when you till them in.

If you have not already ordered summer cover crop seeds, this would be a good time to do so. Cover crops suppress weeds, add organic matter, feed the organisms in the soil and attract beneficial insects, birds and amphibians to feed and reproduce. Biodiversity encourages ecological balance that can help reduce plant diseases and pest attacks. Have a goal of No Bare Soil. Seek out odd spaces to fill with cover crops.

Once frosts are past, buckwheat is an easy cover crop. Its flowers attract beneficial insects, and it is a very manageable (not too tall) fast-growing crop. Buckwheat can be in and under in a month.

Just as fast is mustard, but we don’t grow that because it’s a brassica and we grow a lot of brassica food crops. Keeping a good crop rotation is important to us. Also we have harlequin bugs and we don’t want to feed them year round.

Sorghum-sudangrass hybrid is a fantastic, huge warm weather grass type cover crop, but don’t grow it if you have only a lawnmower, a scythe or a nylon line weed whip to cut it down! For smaller scale gardens, choose Japanese millet.

Soybeans, southern peas and sunn hemp are easy legume cover crops for warm weather, providing nitrogen for the next crop.

Cover cropping is a big topic. See my book Sustainable Market Farming for more. Here I’m just pointing you in the right direction enough to order seeds soon. You can read up more later.

Early Lettuce Production

Young Salad Bowl lettuce
Photo Wren Vile

Early Lettuce Production

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

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

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

Lettuce Types

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

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

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

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

 Lettuce Varieties

Bronze Arrow lettuce ultra-closeup. Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

Nancy bibb lettuce
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

New Red Fire lettuce.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

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

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

Cold-tolerance of lettuce

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

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

Lettuce Crop Requirements

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

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

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

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

Lettuce in January

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lettuce in February

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

Lettuce in March

Lettuce with sclerotinia drop.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

Baby Lettuce Mix

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

 

Root Crops in January

No Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in January!

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of root crops that we sow outdoors here in January. Nor are there any root crops to sow in the greenhouse. Most root crops do not transplant well, as the replanting does too much damage to the taproot. Some exceptions are celeriac and kohlrabi (a stem vegetable more than a root, although I do tend to lump it in with root crops.) I have heard beets can be transplanted, especially if in soil blocks or plugs, and I’ve even heard of people up north transplanting plugs of rutabagas. I tend to be skeptical of books saying this or that can’t be transplanted, as I have transplanted many things. But not yet rutabagas or beets. I did roll my eyes when I heard someone propose transplanting mini-soil-blocks of carrots, using a pair of tongs made with popsicle sticks!

We are in winter-hardiness sub-zone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C).

An Easter Egg radish in the hoophouse in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Around January 26, we sow our last hoophouse radishes (sowing #6), Easter Egg, and White Icicle. This is our absolute last worthwhile sowing date. They will be ready for harvest from mid-March to mid-April, but if the weather is warm, or we fail to open the doors when we should, they will bolt before we get roots.

Our hoophouse radish sowing dates are 9/7, 9/30, 10/28, 11/22, 12/20, 1/27. Note that the sowing intervals are 23, 28, 25, 28, 38 days. The interval is much longer in December-January, as the rate of growth is so slow. There really is no point in sowing closer to the #5 sowing date, as the #6 will catch up in the warming days of late February and early March. The daylength is also increasing a lot by then, too.

If your hoophouse planting plans exceed the space you have, simply tweaking to a less frequent new harvest start could free up space to grow something else. Also consider a gap in radish supply, if other crops could make better use of the space. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates.

In our double-layer hoophouse, turnips (and many cooking greens) can survive a hoophouse air temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan).

January photo of radishes sown in our hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in January except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!

We have already had outdoor night temperatures of 16°F/-9°C and 18°F/-8°C. Until temperatures drop to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi, rutabagas and rowcovered turnips. Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C). This is too chancy for us! We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored.

We store our root crops washed, in perforated plastic bags, in a walk-in cooler. Root cellars and cool basements are also possible storage sites, and in the past, I stored root crops in boxes of damp sand or woodash.

In the hoophouse we can normally harvest radishes #3 (sown October 30) all through January, from 12/15 to 2/1. This winter I notice we have already harvested most of them (1/6). We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) by pulling out the biggest from January 5 (or even late December), until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25). We thin the second sowing in early January or late December.

Young midwinter turnips in our hoophouse.
photo Pam Dawling

See my list of Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables 2020 for a more complete picture of “Harvesting in Time”

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in January

Check stored vegetables

From storage, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips, if we grew them. Stored crops need to be checked for decay at least once a month.

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

Inner tunnels in the hoophouse for cold nights

As noted above, inner rowcovers can make a big improvement to nighttime air temperatures in a hoophouse. We are fortunate to have a climate in central Virginia that means we don’t need inner covers most of the time. We watch the forecast and if we think it will drop to 8°F (-13°C) outdoors, we pull over the rowcovers. For winter crops we don’t use hoops. We have separate lengths of rowcover for each bed. Some people prefer a single large sheet. We find we can set the roll of rowcover at one end of the bed and simply walk with the free end down to the far end of the bed, leaving only a little bit of tweaking to get everything covered.

In the morning, if we feel pretty sure we’ll need the rowcovers again, we just pull the covers into the aisles, leaving every other path free to walk in. If we think we won’t need the rowcovers the next night we roll them up, giving us more space to work, and lengthening the lifespan of the rowcover by not exposing it to much sunlight.

Special Root Crop Topic for January in Central Virginia

Garden Plans Part Two

This garden planning task is not just about root crops. We had our Crop Review in November, and then inventoried our leftover seeds, planned what to grow for next year, and ordered our seeds. See Preparing to order seeds, if you haven’t sent in your orders yet.

We have made our garden maps, and specific plans for important crops with either lots of varieties (tomatoes), lots of sowings (sweet corn) or some combination (lettuce, broccoli and cabbage).

One task we need to complete by mid-January is to prepare our greenhouse seedlings schedule, because here we start sowings in mid-late January. We also tidy up the greenhouse (currently growing lettuce) and test, repair or replace vital equipment (like a seedling heating mat) and supplies like Bt and cover crops seeds.

Tomato seedlings (for our hoophouse) on a heat mat in our greenhouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another January task is to prepare a new Field Planting Schedule, or Outdoor Planting Schedule, as we call it here to distinguish it from our hoophouse schedule and our seedlings schedule. This is a list in date order of what to sow or transplant, how long the rows are, the space between rows, the space between plants (for transplants) and where to plant.

We also plan crops that will go in our raised beds from January to July. We plan the second part of the year in June, giving ourselves more flexibility.

See my Mother Earth News  Garden Planning online course for details

The map of our raised bed area, showing several years of crops using colored pens.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also revise and update our Garden Calendar (monthly task list). For those who want to think more widely about the coming year, here’s a link to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month

Our garden planning wraps up by mid-February, with all the budgets, crew selection and shift decisions (afternoons in cold weather, mornings in hot weather –  we’re mostly half-day gardeners, with one or two stalwart all-day workers)

 

Preparing to order seeds

Preparing to order seeds: 6 steps + 3 extra tips

Leeks grow slowly. Sow in March to have seedlings this size in May. Order seed soon! Photo Pam Dawling

There are lots of new gardeners now, as a result of the pandemic causing people to stay at home, cook more and want more food security without going inside grocery stores. Maybe last year you bought packets of seeds in a hurry, either online or off a rack in as store. Maybe you hope your garden will go more smoothly this year and I’m here with this blog post to help you.

Or perhaps you are a new professional grower, seeking to improve your game. Or an established one, looking to hang in there by farming smarter in these hard times.

‘Tis the season for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out. Be prepared, note your second choice, and fend off disappointment!

Vates kale seedlings for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

I have a course on garden planning for home gardeners, on the Mother Earth Fair Online. It consists of eight half-hour workshops, covering all aspects of garden planning from clarifying your goals, choosing crops, making maps of what will go where, planning when you want to harvest, determining how long your rows will be and how much seed to order, deciding when to plant and scheduling everything to make the year go smoothly. There are also workshops on ways to pack more in, and how to be prepared for things that don’t go according to plan!

Mother Earth News Fair

Commercial growers and energetic home growers will also be interested in the information on garden planning in my book Sustainable Market Farming.

I have a couple of slideshows on SlideShare.net,

See Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production 2019 Pam Dawling

To view it full screen, click the diagonal arrow in the lower right.

For long-term soil health and sustainability, think about crop rotations. See Crop rotations for vegetables and cover crops 2014, Pam Dawling

Buckwheat seedlings. Buckwheat is our quickest easiest summer cover crop.
Photo Pam Dawling

 First, a basic 6 steps of garden planning

  1. See How to Decide Which Crops to Grow.

Think about what you grew last year, and whether you want the same again. Think about what you wished you’d grown. Every year we try to introduce a new crop or two, on a small scale, to see if we can add it to our “portfolio.” Some-times we can successfully grow a crop that is said not to thrive in our climate. (Brussels sprouts really don’t). We like to find the varieties of each crop that do best for our conditions. Later we check how the new varieties do compared with our old varieties. We use heirloom varieties if they do well, hybrids if they are what works best for us. We don’t use treated seeds or GMOs, because of the wide damage we believe they do. For ideas of what you might grow, see our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop.

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in a Winstrip tray
Photo Pam Dawling

2. Are any of your leftover seeds OK to keep?

See making an inventory, and Ordering seeds! Seed Viability Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook. Frank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

Seeds stored in glass jars
Photo courtesy of Monticello

A simplified version of how long to keep seeds is as follows:

  • Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera
  • 2 years: Corn, Beans and Peas of all kinds, Chives, Dandelion, Martynia, Okra, Onions,
  • 3 years: Asparagus, Carrots, Leeks, Rutabagas, Turnips,
  • 4 years: Artichokes, Basil, Cardoons, Chard, Peppers, Pumpkins, Spinach, Squash, and Watermelons,
  • 5 years: Beets, most Brassicas, Celery, Celeriac, Chicory, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Endive, Lettuce, Muskmelons, Tomatoes,

Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce).

The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. Keep seed cool, dark, dry in airtight, mouseproof containers.

An old hand-drawn map of one of our garden areas.
Image Pam Dawling
  1. How Much of What to Grow?

Make a rough map of your garden space and see what will fit. Remember you can plant a later crop in the same space after an earlier one finishes. See below for more info on quantities of potatoes and garlic, two staples.

  • How Much Garlic to Plant

A yield ratio of 1:6 or 7 seems typical, and makes complete sense when you consider you are planting one clove to get a bulb of 6–7 cloves. Divide the amount you intend to produce by six to figure out how much to plant. For large areas 750–1,000 lbs/ac (842–1,122 kg/ha) are needed for plantings in double rows, 3″–4″ in-row (7.5–10 cm), beds 39″ (1 m) apart. For single rows, 8 lbs (3.6 kg) of hardneck or 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of softneck plants about 100′ (30 m). In the US, one person eats 3–9 lbs (1.4–4.2 kg) per year.

Music hardneck garlic.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
A row of potato seed pieces ready to cover.
Photo by Wren Vile
  1. How Much Seed to Order?

Hopefully you kept some kind of record on whether the amount you bought last year was enough. When we figure out how much seed to order we add in some extra for some things – crops that can be difficult to germinate, or we really don’t want to cut too close. We add 20 percent extra for most crops, but only 5 percent for kale, 10 percent for onions and collards and 30 percent for melons. These numbers are based on our experience – yours might be different. We also know which seed we can buy in bulk and use over several years. This gives us an additional security against poor germination, or plagues of grasshoppers or caterpillars. For me, a big bag of broccoli seed for each of our main varieties gives some kind of warm glow of horticultural security! Buying too much either leads to wasting money (if we throw it away) or wasting time and money (if we sow old seed that doesn’t come up well, then have a crop failure).

If you use spreadsheets, see my post Cooking Greens in December Special Topic: Ordering Seeds.

Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops. Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts – have your calculator at the ready, or easier still, just type “Convert ½ oz to grams”into your search engine.

 

  1. Choosing varieties.

See How to read seed catalogs for tips on getting what you really want by paying attention to what’s in the small print and what isn’t mentioned. We carefully look for varieties that offer the flavor, productivity and disease resistance we need. The catalogs are starting to appear in my mail box. The early bird catches the preferred varieties! The main companies we order from are Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and of course, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We like SESE for regionally adapted varieties, Fedco for great prices on bulk sizes, and Johnny’s for some varieties we really like that aren’t available from the other two.

 

  1. Formatting and placing seed orders

We grow lots of different crops, so we make a spreadsheet, and include columns for the name of the supplier we buy each variety from (we just use the initial), the item number in the catalog, the packet size and the price. (Be careful though, if you carry this information over from year to year – prices change.) Once we have composed our total seed order, we sort the orders by the name of the supplier. Then we can calculate the total price for each supplier. This also gives us the opportunity to look at price breaks for large orders and move an item from one supplier to another, if that makes sense. At this point we usually make a cup of tea and reward ourselves with an “impulse buy” or two, if that doesn’t push us up into a higher shipping cost bracket or blow the budget. We place our orders online these days, nice and early, to increase the chances of getting exactly what we want.

Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:

  1. Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

For an overall sense of success, grow some “Insurance Crops”. These are reliable vegetable crops that grow without much attention and quietly wait until needed. Chard is one of those. We sow chard in April, after the early spring rush. We plan for it to provide us with leafy greens in the summer, after the brassicas have bolted. We prepare a bed, unroll hay mulch over it, then make “nests” in the hay for planting. Nests are holes in the hay down to soil level, at each spot where we want to plant. After transplanting. we water and tuck the hay tight around the plants to keep the weeds at bay. Some years there isn’t much demand for chard and we just leave it growing. If we need it, there it is with a generous supply of leaves. If we ignore it, nothing goes wrong. It’s worth having some crops like this in the garden, to help ensure there’s always something to eat.

Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

One year we grew Malabar spinach and it played a similar role: hot weather leafy cooking greens. Malabar can be used when small for salads, or when larger for cooking. It wasn’t hugely popular in either role, but it was beautiful. To be fair, I don’t think we did the best by it. Because it was new, and because it had the word “spinach” in its name, some cooks served large leaves for salad. Alone. I don’t recommend that.

Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Another insurance crop for us is asparagus beans, also known as yard long beans. Once trellised, the plants need no attention, other than regular picking. If not picked, the pods grow puffy and useless, so this is not a crop to ignore for too long. Asparagus beans are related to southern peas (cowpeas), and are more resistant to Mexican bean beetles than regular green beans are. They do need trellising, but once you’ve done that, the same plants will feed you all season. Very little seems to trouble them.

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

While we’re on the topic of crops that do need trellising, but can then produce all season, I’ll add in the West Indian gherkins. I found I did need to tuck these plants into the netting, so they weren’t work free. But the plants were disease-free and very productive. If you have trouble with regular pickling cucumbers, you might sow some of these as well, to be sure of being able to have something to pickle.

Another insurance crop is Tokyo bekana, or its cousin Maruba Santoh in late summer as a substitute for lettuce. It can be hard to germinate lettuce in hot weather, but these tender brassicas germinate under hot conditions and produce fast-growing very tender leaves with crunchy stems. Some people don’t know they’re not eating lettuce!

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

Senposai is a cooking green that does well in spring and fall outdoors, and in our hoophouse in the winter. It’s fast-growing, productive, disease-resistant, easy to cook and delicious to eat.  In spring it needs an early start in our climate, so that it has time to be productive before it bolts. In fall it’s cold-hardy down to 12F.  Its Achilles Heel is that it can really attract Harlequin bugs! We did spend time every day for a while squashing the bugs on the senposai leaves, and we made a difference in the number of bugs.

Well, I hope this has given you some thoughts about ordering seeds of some insurance crops for next year, when you plan your seed order.

  1. VEGETABLE CROPS THAT OFFER FAST RETURNS

Because things can go wrong in agriculture, (we are, after all, not in control of the universe!) I like to have on hand seeds for fast-growing crops that can fill unexpected gaps.

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

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening introduces us to the concept of Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives. I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, as our spring planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. And summer is too hot, winter too cold. . . We sowed in mid-September.

These can also be insurance crops, in that, if you don’t need them, you can cut and compost them, to let fresh leaves grow. I wrote three posts on Eat-All Greens, because they were such fun and so productive

Root Crops in December

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in December

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

Reread Root Crops in October for more ideas of things you might plant, if you are in a much warmer climate zone than us. We are in winter-hardiness subzone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C). We’re not planting anything outdoors in central Virginia in December. But in the hoophouse, we are sowing a couple of things.

Eliot Coleman has given the name Persephone Days to those with less than 10 hours of daylight, when little plant growth happens. Here in central Virginia, the Persephone Days last from November 21 to January 21.  Further north, the period is longer, and it is necessary to grow more of what you want to eat in winter and keep it in a holding pattern to see you through to the other side of the Persephone Days. The holding pattern could be crops in storage, which I wrote about in Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in November. Or it could be crops in the ground in a hoophouse.

Temperature also contributes to rate of growth and this is where hoophouse crops score big! It can be a lot warmer during sunny days inside a hoophouse, and our double-plastic hoophouse keeps nighttime temperatures about 8F (4.5C) degrees warmer than outdoors, sometimes 10F (5.5C) degrees warmer. In addition, plants can tolerate lower temperatures inside a hoophouse. The soil stays warmer and the plants recover in the warmer daytime conditions (it seems to be the night+day average temperature that counts). We find, in practice, the period of slowest growth here is December 15 to February 15: still two months long, but lagging the shortest days by three weeks. It takes time for the soil to cool down in late fall and time for it to warm up in early spring.

Hoophouse radishes and Yukina Savoy in December.
Photo Wren Vile

In our double-layer hoophouse, plants without any inner rowcover can survive 14F (7.7C) degrees colder than they could survive outside; with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan) inner covers, at least 21F (11.6C) degrees colder than outside. For example, salad greens in our hoophouse can survive nights with outdoor lows of 14°F (-10°C). Turnips (and many cooking greens) survived a hoophouse temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with.

In early December, we sow turnips #3. We sow Hakurei, Early White Egg, Oasis, and Red Round. They will struggle a bit to grow, so they are only worth sowing if we thin them promptly and harvest them on the small size, as the plants will start bolting in early March. See Root Crops in October, for details of thinning and harvesting.

In late December, we sow hoophouse radishes #5, Easter Egg and White Icicle. Cherry Belle and Sparkler types grow too fibrous at this time of year. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates. Unlike the late October sowing which lasts for 8 weeks, the November sowing will only be good for the (slow-growing) four weeks of February, and this late December one for four weeks from mid-February to mid-March. In this case, it is because the temperature in the hoophouse and the daylength will have increased by then and the radishes will grow fast and start bolting.

Young Red Round turnips in our hoophouse in late November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in December

In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in December except parsnips. Jerusalem artichokes are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C), but we haven’t grown those in decades. Horseradish is similarly hardy, but not a mainstay of nutrition. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. This is not woo-woo, it happens that September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!

Horseradish regrowing up through the mulch in early spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

If temperatures have not yet dropped to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi and rowcovered turnips. But we don’t take that chance. We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored. We also like to put our feet up more in December!

Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C).

In the hoophouse we can harvest radishes #2 until 12/25, #3 (sown October 30) from 12/15 to 2/1. We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) as thinnings from November 29 and by pulling out the biggest from December 5, until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25).

Turnips in our hoophouse in December.
Photo Wren Vile

See my list of Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables 2020 for a more complete picture of “Harvesting in Time”

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in December

From storage we can eat (if we grew them!) beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, turnips. Stored crops need to be visited at least once a month and checked for decay.

In our winter squash cage we keep some pancake turners rejected by the kitchen crew. If a squash is having a meltdown, I slide it onto a tray or a bucket lid and throw it outside. The first time I did that this year, I made the mistake of sliding a second squash on top of the first on my bucket lid. The first one couldn’t support the weight of the second. Messy! Sliding them into a bucket would have been safer.

A fine winter squash medley (no, they’re not root crops!)
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Special Root Crop Topic for December in Central Virginia

Crop Review and Planning Part One

This is a wider task, not restricted to root crops. In November we have a Crop Review, and then start to plan our crops for next year. We like to get our seed orders in early, to maximize our chances of getting the varieties and quantities we’d like. Some seeds might be in short supply this time, because of all the new gardeners and Covidsteaders that joined our ranks this year.

We consider how well our crops did in terms of plant vigor, disease-resistance, yield, quality, flavor and timing. Did they come in all at once? A benefit for storage crops or those you might sell wholesale. Not so great if you want an extended harvest period.

Planting dates, soil quality, sufficiency (or otherwise) of pest and weed control, plant protection from the elements are all factors that affect yield and crop quality. We can plan to make changes to those things next year. We can decide to plant a different amount, or spread out the planting dates. This can lead to a new calculation of how much seed to buy for the coming year.

By now the seed catalogs are starting to arrive and we can look at what varieties are on offer. Is there a faster-growing turnip? A different carrot we’d like to try? Something with more resistance to the disease we noticed this past year? Something more recommended for our climate or region? While you’re browsing, make a back-up plan if you can’t get your first choice, either from the same catalog, or another.

Hoophouse turnips and baby lettuce mix in December (note the low sun angles!)
Photo Wren Vile

Winter hoophouse growing

 

Hoophouse Yukina savoy at the end of November.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Last week I wrote about Winter Preparations for Vegetable Gardens. For those with a hoophouse, here are some notes on all the work we can do to grow winter crops there! For those without a hoophouse as yet, scroll to the end for Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

First, a roundup of previous blogposts on winter hoophouse topics.

Planning winter hoophouse crops includes a description of how we do our hoophouse crop planning so we can maintain a crop rotation and still pack the beds fully with hardy crops.

Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal includes spreading compost, broadforking, and a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep.

Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs includes some lovely spider photos and a short video of ballooning, as well as info about our first-planted winter crops.

Hoophouse bed broadforked to loosen up slumped soil. I’m happy to say our soil structure has improved in the 18 years since this photo was taken!
Photo Pam Dawling

Young greens in the hoophouse

After the set-backs with our winter hoophouse greens transplants that I wrote about in Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs, we worked really hard and got the whole house planted up. Most of the transplants have recovered from their transplant shock (wilting each day), during the cloudy weather we had.

The new seedlings are coming up fast and calling on us to thin them. We ended up not needing so many of the Plan D plug flat plants, but we’ve kept them for now “in case” .

Plan D: Winstrip seed flats in our hoophouse on Oct 16, a late attempt to catch up!
Photo Pam Dawling

Ultimately if we don’t need them, they’ll go in a salad mix. I wrote about Making baby salad mix last year. The past two days I have been able to harvest a mix in the hoophouse. The ingredient we are shortest of is lettuce. My first mix was spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, a few leaves of Tokyo Bekana, Bright Lights chard, Scarlet Frills, Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills, and a handful of lettuce leaves Red Tinged Winter is growing fastest, of all the varieties we planted this year.

Sowing hoophouse winter crops includes some discussion of the tools we like; pre-sprouting spinach seed and growing multi-leaf lettuce.

What’s growing in the hoophouse; reading; planning for winter is an October view of crops.

Frilly Mustards in our Winter Hoophouse is exactly what it sounds like. Four sowings, six varieties. All delicious.

Making baby salad mix includes a discussion of ingredients and methods, balancing nutrition, color, shape and loft.

Young green Panisse and red Revolution lettuce in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest, our January 2018 assessment of the varieties we grew that winter and which survived the unusually cold spell we had. Includes sad photos of the casualties!

Also see my Mother Earth News blogpost from August 2018 Grow Great Lettuce in Winter

———————————————————–

Hoophouse seedlings growing outdoors under insect netting. Starting transplants outdoors helps the rotation by reducing the time the crop is growing in the hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

Do you value crop rotation in your hoophouse?

In the winter 2019-2020, a reader in the Pacific Northwest wrote: “This winter I have been re-thinking my crop rotation plan after having some issues (with flea beetle larvae in the soil outsmarting my diligent insect netting of my brassica salad crops). These days I see intensive market gardeners seeming to not worry so much about rotation (i.e. Neversink farm, etc), and yet I’ve always been taught that it is such an important principle to follow. I reviewed your slideshows on crop rotation and also cool crop planning in the greenhouse (which briefly addresses salad brassica rotation with other crops). With how much space I have and the high demand I have for brassicas, for salad mix (mustards) and also the more mainstay cole crops, I had settled on a 2.5 yr between brassica crop rotation (but planting two successions of mustards in the same bed within one year, in the year the bed was in mustards, with a lettuce or other crop breaking up the successions, with the idea that they were very short day and also light feeder crops). Wondering if you think this just doesn’t sound cautious enough, or if this sounds like a reasonable compromise with not having more space to work with (and wanting to satisfy the market demand for brassicas).”

I replied: “Yes, I do think crop rotation is important. I do know some farms seem to have given it up. I think what you are seeing shows one reason why rotation is important. In our hoophouse, we do as you do, allocating brassicas to a space for that winter season and perhaps doing more than one round of brassica crops. Then moving away from brassicas for the next two winters. If doing that doesn’t get rid of the flea beetle problem, and you are being thorough about netting with small-enough mesh netting (sounds like you are, but maybe check the mesh size), then my next step would be spinosad when the flea beetles appear. You can spray the inside of the netting too, and close it quickly. It’s that or a longer rotation, which it sounds like is not financially viable. You could also try farmscaping and/or importing predatory insects (not sure if there are any), Are there beneficial nematodes that attack flea beetle larvae? These are things I don’t know about, but might be worth looking into.”


Doing a spot of research today, I find that Heterorhabditis bacteriaphora, (Hb nematodes) a beneficial nematode fromArbico Organics will attack flea beetles. also known as NemaSeek, and sold separately. This is the wrong time of year for introducing nematodes in most of the US. They need warm weather to thrive.

Another suggestion from Arbico is BotaniGard Maxx & other B. bassiana sprays, which infect and kill adult flea beetles. Repeat applications as needed throughout the growing season.

Kaolin clay (Surround) is another possibility.

Also see Harvest to Table on the topic of dealing with flea beetles

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View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Add a hoophouse to your food production

For those of you wistfully thinking about a hoophouse, let me help you a step closer to having one next year! Sales of my Year-Round Hoophouse book are doing well, which suggests to me that quite a few gardeners and growers are thinking in this direction.

Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

  1. An extended growing season because plants are protected from cold weather.
  2. Faster growth and higher total yields.
  3. Beautiful unblemished crops not battered by the elements.
  4. Fewer foliar diseases because the leaves can stay dry.
  5. Crop survival at lower temperatures in the hoophouse than is possible outdoors.
  6. Better crop recovery in winter due to warm sunny days following the cold nights.
  7. Some protection from deer and other pests large and small.
  8. Soil temperature stays above 50F (10C) in zone 6b. Warm soil = faster cold weather growth.
  9. Higher proportion of usable crops – more food, higher sales dollars.
  10. Diverse crop portfolio – grow crops that wouldn’t succeed outdoors in your climate.
  11. Harvest whenever you need the crops, even during pouring rain!
  12. Wonderful working conditions – no need for gloves and hats; take off your coat.
  13. A food garden on a manageable scale.
  14. A place to enjoy practicing intensive food production.
  15. The chance to have an area completely free of weeds – new weed seed doesn’t blow in.
  16. No need to work with heavy machinery.
  17. Much better value for producing crops (per dollar invested) than a heated greenhouse.
  18. Can be constructed by generally-handy people. Specialists are not needed.
  19. NRCS grants are available for some hoophouses. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, High Tunnel System Initiative.
  20. Ecological energy use. The embodied energy of the plastic is less than the energy that would be used to ship similar produce from somewhere warmer (Eliot Coleman, Four Season Harvest). Another study found this was not true for smaller (9 x 12 m) hoophouses – although the economic incentive for growers is still true, there is no energy efficiency advantage to the planet. Smaller carbon footprint: shipping 1 kg lettuce has 4.3 times the CO2 footprint of locally grown hoophouse lettuce. Plawecki, R., Pirog, R., Montri, A., & Hamm, M. (2014). Comparative carbon footprint assessment of winter lettuce production in two climatic zones for Midwestern market. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 29(4), 310-318. doi:10.1017/S1742170513000161.
September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

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Know your climate

WeatherSpark climate summary for Louisa, Virginia. Go to the website to click for more information

The WeatherSpark website provides “The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth”. Enter your nearest town or airport and you get clearly explained info with fascinating graphics of how the weather goes over the year in your locality. Note this is not a forecast site, it’s about average weather for each place. Useful to people who’ve recently moved and want to know what to expect this winter, or to new gardeners who haven’t paid so much attention previously. Or to those who want to check their assumptions (I really thought the wind was out of the west more of the time than records say). There are charts of high and low temperature, temperature by the hour each month, cloud cover, daily chance of precipitation (both rainfall and snowfall), hours of daylight, humidity, wind speed and direction and solar energy. A big help in making wise decisions. I know that climate change is going to cause havoc with averages, and we’ll need to learn to become better weather forecasters individually, and to use soil temperature and other metrics to decide when to plant. This website explains things well.

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Winter gives a time for most of us to ponder success, failure, and possibilities for doing things differently.