Green Beans All Summer

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

Here I’m talking about snap beans, both bush beans and pole beans, often simply called green beans. By choosing appropriate varieties and giving thought to planting dates, you can get high yields all summer until frost.

Bean Varieties

We like Provider and Bush Blue Lake snap beans for productivity and flavor. We often sow Provider for the early and late crops, with Bush Blue Lake during the main season. Contender may have more flavor, but is less productive then Provider. Jade is a delicious, very tender bean, which grows well in hot weather, but will be a dismal failure if the soil is too cold. Our approach is to plant a succession of 6 sowings of bush beans, so we always have some at the peak of production.

Those who like flat beans often choose Romano II as a reliable producer of tasty beans whether it is hot or cool, wet or dry. Some people like yellow (wax) beans for visual diversity – the flavor is not much different from green beans. Purple-podded beans look attractive while raw, although the color fades on cooking.

Yellow wax beans.
Photo Small Farm Central

We have given up on pole beans as we don’t like putting up trellises. If the advantage of standing to harvest beats the disadvantage of putting up a trellis, you’ll prefer pole beans over bush varieties. Pole beans take a few days longer to mature but can then be picked for a longer period, if they don’t get damaged by the Mexican bean beetle. Half-runner beans can be grown with or without trellises, and are capable of high yields. We haven’t grown any we really liked.

Prepare for green beans

Beans tolerate a wide pH range, and like plenty of sun and well-drained soil. They definitely don’t thrive if flooded! An open site with good air drainage will help minimize mold problems and other leaf diseases. Bush beans take 50-62 days from sowing to first harvest, a bit less once the soil is really warm. A soil temperature of 77°F (25°C) is best for germination, although a temperature of 55-60°F (13-16°C) and rising is workable for dark-seeded varieties. Air temperatures of 65-85°F (18-29°C) are best for growth.

Like all legumes, beans produce nitrogen in their root nodules, although this doesn’t peak till after the beans are being harvested. In order to grow strong bean plants, you can fertilize before the beans at about 4 oz N/100 sq ft (13.4g/sq m), and use the bean-produced fertility for the following crop. If your soil is already very fertile, you could skip fertilizing before sowing the beans. Excess nitrogen will produce lots of leaves but delay flowering. 80-85% of the nitrogen produced ends up in the bean tops, so if possible turn them under before planting the next crop, rather then remove them to the compost pile.

Because they are not planted until spring is well underway, beds for beans can grow a good stand of winter cover crops ahead of the bean crop. Winter rye should be turned under three weeks ahead of sowing, to allow the rye to break down and for the allelopathic compounds to break down. We have found wheat to be easier to incorporate and to have less of an inhibiting effect on germination of the next crop. It is usual to avoid legume cover crops ahead of legume food crops, to reduce the likelihood of spreading pests or diseases. For the same reasons, it is better to grow beans where there have not been other legumes for 3 years. Sclerotinia white mold can be avoided by rotating with sweet corn or other grass crops, and avoiding nightshades, brassicas, lettuce, or other legumes. 

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

Start beans as early as possible

We make our first sowing 10 days before the average last spring frost date, and cover the bed with rowcover. Dark-seeded varieties are more resistant to rot in cold soils, so use these at least for the first spring sowing. To speed germination, soak the seed overnight (up to 8 hours) in tepid water. If the sowing has to be postponed after the beans are soaked, rinse them twice a day and drain. Plant in 3 or 4 days. If you wait longer than that, the rootlets will be too long and fragile.

Sow your beans

If possible, ensure the soil has enough water before you sow, as watering after sowing can cause crusting and also chilling injury to the seed from the cold water. Avoid irrigation for two weeks after sowing to reduce the chance of the seed rotting. Sow 1” (2.5cm) deep, a little shallower in spring, a little deeper in hot weather. Place seeds 2-3” (5-7cm) apart. We use the wider spacing for new seed, and the closer planting for one-year-old seed. Two-year-old beans often have a germination rate of only 50%, and are not worthwhile. 

You can plant beans 2 rows to a bed, or on-the-flat in single rows with enough space to accommodate the pickers. The best spacing for optimum yield is 36 sq ins (232 sq cm) per plant. For example, 2” in-row x 18” between rows (5 x 46cm). Another advantage of close spacing is that the plants are more upright, with the beans higher in the leaves. This is less space than recommended for areas prone to fungal diseases.

Planting soaked inoculated beans through holes in plastic.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Beans host nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on the roots, and if you are growing beans on land that has not grown legumes before, or it’s spring and you don’t want to rely on the existing bacteria waking up, add some powdered inoculant. You could add this at each sowing, as it is cheap and easy, especially if the beans have been soaked. Simply scatter some of the black powder on the beans as if you were adding pepper to your dinner, then stir the seed gently. Each bean needs only a few specks of the inoculant to get started. Contrary to any rural myths, the inoculant does not speed germination.

Care for your beans

Don’t cultivate or harvest while the leaves are wet, since anthracnose, bacterial blight and rust disease are more likely to spread under these conditions. Hoe or machine cultivate while the bean plants are still small, and once they grow taller and bush out, few weeds will cause trouble. We have tried sowing beans through biodegradable plastic mulch, poking holes with rods and popping the seeds in. This crop stayed very clean, and withstood a drought caused by a crew member mistakenly pulling the drip tape out too soon. Sowing took a long time, and anyone tempted to try this would be advised to make a jig that punches multiple holes at once. In that way, the saved cultivation time, lack of diseases, and extended life of the plants might balance out the extra sowing time.

Using the bean dibble to punch holes through the plastic mulch (the soil is holding down the edges of the mulch).
Photo Brittany Lewis
Beans growing on biodegradable plastic mulch.
Photo Nina Gentle

Irrigation is most needed during bloom, pod set and pod enlargement. Time the watering so that the leaves dry before nightfall. Beans need around 1” (2.5cm) of water until the end of May, then up to double that in summer.

Carry on sowing beans as late as sensible

To calculate your last worthwhile sowing date, subtract the number of days from sowing to harvest from your first frost date. Then count back a further two or three weeks, whatever would be a worthwhile length of harvest period for you. If you don’t have rowcover for when it turns chilly, count back another week or two in case frost is extra-early. Our first frost could be October 14, and counting back 60 days gets us to mid-August. We go with a last sowing in early August. We pay attention to weather forecasts, and when frost threatens, we cover with rowcover on the cold nights. Usually this lets us get several more pickings before any serious cold weather arrives. During the day, rowcover would stop pollination, but it does not stop beans that have already set from growing to full size.

Bad damage from Mexican bean beetles on these bean leaves. Beetles will also attack the pods after a while, making them inedible.
Photo Wren Vile

Plant beans often for continuous harvest

Before we discovered the Pedio wasps to kill the Mexican Bean Beetles, we needed a new patch of beans coming into production every 2 weeks. We made 7 plantings at 15 day intervals. We now plan for a new patch to harvest every 20 days, sowing 6 times rather than 7. As well as saving space and sowing time, we get more beans than previously. Some of the time we pick from two overlapping patches.

To calculate the best planting dates for your farm, you’ll need four pieces of information: first possible planting date in spring, last planting date that will provide a crop in time before fall frost, first harvest date from each sowing you’ve done, and the number days you want to be picking from the same plants. For us, space is tight, and we want to pick from the same plants for 3 weeks, after which the yield goes down, and it takes too long to “search” for the ripe beans.

We determined our earliest possible and latest worthwhile harvest start dates, and then divided the period in between into a whole number of intervals. In our case we went for 20 days. If we expect the first beans to start coming in on 6/16 and the last ones on 9/24, then the period in between is 100 days long. If we want fresh beans every 20 days, we’ll need a total of 5 intervals between plantings, which is 6 sowings.

A May sowing of Provider beans in late June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Our records tell us that for harvest dates of 6/16, 7/6, 7/26, 8/15, 9/4 and 9/24, we need to sow 4/20, 5/14, 6/4, 6/26, 7/19 and 8/7. In practice we use sowing dates of 4/16, 5/14, 6/7, 6/29, 7/19 and 8/3. Notice that beans mature faster in warmer weather, and to keep up with them, we need shorter planting intervals later in the summer. Our sowing intervals are 28, 24, 22, 20 and 15 days.

Harvest your beans

We pick beans three times a week, going for pencil-sized pods with pliable tips. In our climate, beans can size up in two days. It’s important to nip through the stem of the pod, and not leave the cap part on the plant, as this is the part which signals to the plant whether to continue cranking out beans or stop and focus on ripening seed. For the same reason, it is important to pick and discard any oversize pods.

Like many warm weather crops, beans are liable to chilling injury if over-refrigerated. If possible keep the temperature above 40°F (4.5°C), or you risk having the beans become slimy and pitted. At 40-45°F (4.5-7°C) and 95% humidity, beans can be stored for 7-10 days. Temperatures above 45°F (7°C) are likely to lead to yellowing and development of fiber.

A plentiful supply of beans!
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Watch out for trouble

Scout the fields once a week, and keep a weather-eye open while harvesting or cultivating, to spot small problems before they become large ones. See the Cornell University 2016 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Snap Beans for detailed organic disease and pest control information.

Lifecycle of the Mexican bean beetle.
Photo Purdue University

By far the worst pest of beans we ever deal with is the Mexican Bean Beetle, a yellow-bronze beetle with eight black spots. Adults overwinter in plant debris, so clean up well in the fall, and try not to have your first bean planting be near the site of your last one the previous year. Here, the MBB emerge on the first cloudy day in early June. We used to flame each bean planting when numbers and damage became intolerable, and move on to the next planting. A smarter move would have been to plant a small early trap crop of beans deliberately at or near the site of the late beans the previous year, and then flame the trap crop when there are larvae, but not yet any pupae.

Nowadays we buy the parasitic wasps Pediobius foveolatus, ordering them as soon as we see the fuzzy yellow MBB larvae, which is the stage the wasps attack. The package contains mummified MBB larvae, with the wasps on the point of hatching. Set the open container under the bean plants close to some MBB eggs and larvae. Sometimes I shake out a few mummies here and there along the row. Once hatched, the wasps are very mobile, and will likely take care of your neighbors’ MBB as well. The Pediobius do not overwinter in our climate, but we have found that good control for a few years reduces numbers so that we can sometimes take a year off from buying the parasites.

See Using Pediobius Foveolatus as a Biological Control for Mexican Bean Beetles on Organic Vegetable Farms by Kim Stoner. Suppliers come and go, apart from the Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Rearing Laboratory, who we have been buying from for many years. Two other suppliers are Bugsforgrowers.com and Arbico, Read the instructions here.

Other insects that can damage bean crops include bean leaf beetle, potato leafhopper, seedcorn maggot, European corn borer and tarnished plant bug. Mites and slugs can also cause trouble.

The main defenses against disease are to keep the leaves as dry as possible. Consider orienting the rows to take advantage of the prevailing winds, planting on raised beds, using wide row spacing or in-row plant spacing.

Fungal diseases tend to be furry. Botrytis Grey Mold and Sclerotinia white mold are the most common.

Bacterial diseases of beans cause sunken or water-soaked brown spots perhaps with paler margins, on leaves and pods. Virus diseases cause leaves that are typically mottled, blistered or curled.

Most likely, it will be you enjoying your beans and not pests and diseases!

Workhorse Crops for April

 

Garlic beds in April. Cabbage under rowcover on the left, strawberry beds on the right. Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the last month in my series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of weather conditions.

Here are links to the other 11 months:

Spring is here. April is a busy month for sowing and transplanting! First the rest of the cool weather crops, then the first of the warm weather crops. Our average last frost (over the past 14 years) here in central Virginia is April 29. We reached 12 hours of daylight on the March 20 Equinox, and the days lengthen until the summer solstice.

Gentry yellow squash newly transplanted into our hoophouse, with a friendly wood sorrel!
Photo Pam Dawling

In our hoophouse we are transplanting squash, cucumbers, and peppers in April. Those crops will occupy the centers of the beds, before taking over the whole width. By that time, we will have harvested any remaining winter salad crops, and the spinach we transplanted in early March. Our greenhouse and coldframe are packed with transplants.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in April

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

Beans

We sow our first green beans April 24, around our last frost date. We choose two reliable varieties, Provider and Bush Blue Lake. Or Contender. There are varieties that are more delectable and tender, like Jade, but those are less cold-tolerant, and so not good for the first planting. We soak the bean seed overnight before planting.

We sow 2 rows in a 4ft (1.2 m) wide bed, with the rows about 16” (40 cm) apart. Seeds about 3” (7 cm) apart, closer if they are leftover from last year. Bean seed does not germinate well if older than that.

We use inoculant to help the nitrogen-fixing bacteria get started. We probably have plenty in the soil by now, but early in the year, everyone is a bit slower to get moving!  We cover the beds with rowcover until the weather has settled warm.

We make 6 sowings of beans. Our sowing dates are 4/24, 5/8, 5/24, 6/8, 6/24 and 7/8. The intervals between plantings are 14, 16, 15, 16 and 14 days. This schedule has got a bit off-course and has a much earlier end date than necessary. A better set of dates would be 4/20, 5/11, 6/1, 6/22, 7/13 and 8/3, at intervals of 21 days. The rate of maturity of beans does not vary much with temperature.

Cabbage

We are not growing any storage cabbage this spring, due to those infamous staff shortages everyone is struggling with. If we had sown some in early February, we would be transplanting them April 1, and covering the bed with ProtekNet for as long as possible to keep the bugs off. If we used rowcover when we first transplanted them, we remove it in April to use elsewhere (broccoli). Cabbage to store for the summer can be a great way to have greens other than chard during hot weather.

A tidy bed of young carrots. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

From April we switch to sowing one bed per month until August. We sow our fifth carrots April 10, and our sixth in May. The April sowing takes about 11 days to germinate, depending in on the soil temperature. Our standard practice is to flame weed carrots before the seedlings emerge. In April we have lots of weeding and thinning of carrots sown earlier.

Chard

We sow chard (and leaf beet, the type of chard closest to spinach) on March 24, and transplant on April 22, with two rows in a bed, close together down the middle, to leave the paths free for us. Chard will be our main summer leafy green after the brassicas have all bolted. We usually do a mix of a multicolor type for beauty, Fordhook Giant for reliability and productivity, and Perennial Spinach leaf beet as insurance. The leaves are smaller, making it slower to pick, but it does taste more like spinach than any of the other chards, and it is very resilient.

Young sweet corn plants.;
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sweet Corn

We sow our first sweet corn on April 26, being sure to choose varieties such ads Bodacious, with good cold-soil emergence. We also sow some Speedling flats on the same day, and float them in a n outdoor tank, as a care-free way of having some backups to transplant as replacements for casualties if a late frost strikes. Our harvest goal with our fist sowing is July 4-18. Our 6 sowings of sweet corn are scheduled to give us an even continuous supply, with a new planting coming on-stream every 15 days. We harvest three times a week

Potatoes

Potatoes can be planted here in April, but we prefer to divide our planting in two, half in march, half in June. Click the link for more about every stage of potato growing .

A row of squash plants with ProtekNet to keep bugs off until flowering.
Photo Pam Dawling

Summer Squash/Zucchini

We transplant our first outdoor summer squash and zucchini (as well as the ones we grow earlier in the hoophouse). We start them in the greenhouse March 27, in 6×12 Speedling flats. Those cells are bigger than the Winstrip 50 cells. We like Tender Gray 42d zucchini, a light-colored Middle Eastern variety, and Zephyr 54d yellow squash with distinctive green tips. We transplant them 4/21 with rowcover or ProtekNet to keep the striped cucumber beetles away. Other squash pests (Squash bugs, Squash Borers) are not such a problem for us. From the second sowing onwards, we direct sow outdoors, as the soil has warmed up by then. We often transplant or sow nasturtiums in among the squash (or the cucumbers) to deter cucumber beetles. We also enjoy the flowers.

Greenhouse sowings for later transplanting outside, and other greenhouse work

In April in the greenhouse, we sow our watermelons, and paste tomatoes if we’re growing those, and some non-workhorse crops, of course.

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

Watermelon

Watermelons need warm soil. We’re not growing any this year. Our method has been to sow them in Winstrip 50-cell trays in the greenhouse April 26, and transplant them into biodegradable plastic mulch (with drop tape under it) May 11. (We use 3’ (1 m) spacing with rows 66” (1.7 m) apart. We rowcover the transplants for 3 weeks, until flowering, and then remove the covers to allow pollination to happen.)

Winter Squash.

Winter squash is normally such a lovely, easy crop! Direct sow, water, thin, hoe, till between the rows until the vines run, then ignore them (apart from watering) until September. We have mostly grown Moschata types as they have the best resistance to squash bugs, and they store really well. Our favorites include Waltham butternut, Cha-cha Kabocha, Cheese Pumpkins, Jarrahdale squash and the giant Tahitian Butternut. We direct sow May 26, but if there are particular challenges with constant rain preventing us preparing the soil, we have transplanted, from cells sown in late April.

Potting Up

Pepper transplants in our greenhouse. Photo Kathryn Simmons

We pot up the peppers and eggplant for transplanting outdoors in May. Eggplant needs to be kept above 55°F (13°C), peppers above 50°F (10°C) and tomatoes above 45°F (7°C).

Sweet Potato Slips

Also, we continue cutting sweet potato slips. I covered growing sweet potato slips last week.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in the Hoophouse in April: Squash, Cucumbers, Peppers

North edge bed in our hoophouse flagged up for digging holes to plant peppers.
Photo Pam Dawling

We plant one bed each of these crops, measuring and digging holes 2’ (60 cm) apart down the center of the bed, and adding a shovelful of compost to each hole. We do not clear the winter crops from the beds before transplanting the new crops. We value the extra month of greens we can harvest this way. When the new crops are small, they don’t need the whole space, and I’ve even thought that the slight shade from the greens helps the new transplants settle in.

We grow a bush (non-vining) cucumber Spacemaster, and two early squashes, sometimes Golden Glory zucchini and Zephyr. The bell peppers are Lady Bell, Gilboa (orange) and Revolution, all fairly early, big, thick-fleshed  and tasty.

Hoophouse Tomatoes

In April we install the posts for tomatoes (hopefully we won’t need to use rowcover at nights any more, and start string-weaving. We use the Florida string-weaving (or basket-weaving) technique to support our plants. More about that task in future.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in April

Asparagus

Asparagus photo Kathryn Simmons

The asparagus harvest season usually begins for us in early April. Well prior to that date we root out early weeds.  Then we fertilize with fish meal and greensand or a complete fertilizer, or add a thick layer of rich compost (if we did not do this in the fall), spread over the whole bed.  Next, mulch to a depth of at least 4” (10 cm) for weed control, with wood chips, wood chip horse bedding, sawdust, straw or old hay (although hay may include weed seeds).

I recommend snapping asparagus spears at ground level – cutting them below the soil surface risks damaging emerging spears. Harvest in the early morning, as the spears are easier to snap before they warm up. Snapped asparagus is almost all tender and usable – the tough lower ends remain in the soil. If you expect a frosty night, harvest all spears, regardless of size, as they will otherwise freeze and be wasted. We have sometimes done a second (afternoon) harvest, if we’ve noticed a cold forecast. During the harvest season, ensure the asparagus gets 2” (5 cm) water each week.

At the beginning of the season, when the weather is cooler, spears can grow to 9-10” (22-25 cm) before ferning out, but in warmer weather, they will open out at a shorter height.  So, expect to harvest shorter spears in warmer weather. To keep life simple, we tell our crew to pick any spears 7” (17 cm) or taller. You may prefer to change the required length according to the temperature. Harvest anything of the right length, regardless of thickness. For pest management, we pick and later discard skinny, tough spears, and any that are ferning out. (Slender stems are not more tender than large ones, quite the contrary.) We harvest the entire patch every single day as a way of controlling asparagus beetles – no spears are left long enough to leaf out, and beetle eggs are removed (on the spears) and cannot hatch. The eggs are harmless, and can be washed off after harvest by spraying with water, or tub-washing.

We harvest into short buckets so that the spears will be standing on end when the bucket is upright. We add a small amount of water, to keep the spears fresh, and hurry the buckets to a cooler at 34-40°F (1-5°C).

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons

First year after the planting year

Trials now show that asparagus yields more long-term if it is lightly harvested for 2-4 weeks in the first year after the planting year, in contrast to previous directions to wait 3 or 4 years. Stop harvesting after 4 weeks at the most, as soon as the thickness of most of the spears is less than the size of a pencil.

After the first (short) harvest season, let the spears grow tall and fern out. The photosynthesis of the ferns feeds the crowns and strengthens them for next year’s growth. Established asparagus is fairly drought-tolerant, but immature plantings need 1” (2.5 cm) of water each week. By the fall ferns will be 4-5’ (1.2-1.5 m) tall. Apply compost every year in the fall or winter.

Second year culture

In late February or March, we weed, spread compost (if we didn’t do it in the fall) and mulch to a depth of at least 3” (7.5 cm). We harvest for perhaps 5 or 6 weeks in the second year after the planting year. Stop picking when the thickness of most stems is less than a pencil. By the end of this second season the asparagus ferns will likely reach a height 6-8’ (1.8-2.4 m).

Third year and future years

Weed, spread compost, mulch, harvest and irrigate, weed, mulch. Pick asparagus for perhaps 6 weeks in the third production year, stopping when the spears are thin. By the fifth year you should reach a maximum harvest season of 8-9 weeks.

Chard – our hoophouse chard is growing at a good rate. This winter we started late, and so we have only been able to harvest the chard small, for salad mixes. In April we will get leaves large enough to cook.

Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

Collards and Kale can be harvested all month (over-wintered plants) until they start bolting. The spring-planted ones outdoors are ready from mid-April.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one!

Garlic scallions are still available to harvest here. We dig the plants once the leaves have reached at least 7” (18 cm). Wash and trim, cook and enjoy! Some years we have made a big planting, and it has provided for us into May (when they will start to bulb).

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in April

Our Red and White Russian kales are now producing well. These are Siberian-type kales, that keep growing (a bit!) in cold weather. We harvest the outer leaves and stand them on end in a bucket in a little water. The wilt very easily, so we try to keep them in the shade and get them to the cooler promptly.

Workhorse Crops from Storage in April

In April we can eat cabbage carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash from storage, while they last. We do still have potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Also we have frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic for April: Rowcover

A rowcovered bed of turnips.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Use rowcover to keep new transplants outdoors protected from cold until they are acclimated and /or the weather warms up. In the hoophouse in April we use rowcover on possible frosty nights, to protect our new tender crops.

Rowcover is lightweight, easy to use, and easy to store. Its biggest challenge is that you need to hold down the edges with bags of rocks or sand, plastic jugs of water, or metal or wooden stakes rolled in the edges, to stop it blowing open or even blowing away!

To protect against cold, you need thick rowcover. We think polypropylene rowcover lasts longer and is tougher than polyester (Reemay). We like Dupont Xavan 5131 (aka Typar). 1.25 oz/sq yd spunbonded polypropylene, with 75% light transmission, and about 6 F (3.3 C) degrees of frost protection. It can last for 6 years or more.

Thinner types are made to protect from insects – if you already have thin rowcover You can double it up for cold weather use. Thinner types are very fragile and are easily torn by inexperienced helpers.

Double hoop system for winter rowcover.
Pam Dawling

Hoops keep rowcover from sticking to frozen leaves and reduce abrasion. For winter we made double wire hoops. 9- or 10-gauge wire inner hoops, 22 gauge outer hoops, every 6ft (2 m) down the length of the row.

See Workhorse Crops for March for info on Predicting Frost

Blueberries.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

For my next series of crops for the month, I’m planning to write about small fruits (berries and melons)

Workhorse Crops for March

 

Flats of transplants in our cold frame ready for transplanting.
Pam Dawling

We’ve just got a few months left in my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of weather conditions. You can use the search box to find other posts in the series, such as February.

Spring is on the way! Many more crops to plant this month! Our average last frost (over the past 14 years) here in central Virginia is April 29. We reach 11 hours of daylight on February 20, and we and everyone else will reach 12 hours on the March 20 Equinox. It’s all go!

In our hoophouse we are clearing bolting crops and transplanting spinach (the “Racehorse” of this series) wherever we have space along the edges of the beds. The tomatoes go in in March and squash, cucumbers, and peppers in April. Those crops will occupy the centers of the beds, before taking over the whole width. Our greenhouse is filling up with transplants.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in March

Young spring cabbage with a hay mulch. Wren VIle
Cabbage

We transplant our early cabbage around March 6. We had trouble with mice in the greenhouse in early February and lost quite a few seedlings. We also made the mistake of using seed that was too old. So we will have only one bed of early cabbage this year, not two. We did try to make up for the losses by resowing fast-maturing varieties, but we still ended up short. We like Farao (60d) and Early Jersey Wakefield (63d). Both numbers are seed to harvest. Subtract 20 days if counting from transplanting to maturity. We will cover the bed with thick rowcover for the first few weeks after transplanting.

Carrots
Newly emerged carrots with indicator beets.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We sow carrots in mid-March, and again at the end of March. The mid-March sowing takes from 9-19 days to germinate, depending in on the soil temperature. The end of March sowing takes 9-12 days. We sow a few Indicator Beets at the beginning of the bed. Beets germinate one day sooner than carrots at almost any temperature. When we see the red loops of the beet stems emerging, we know it’s the day to flame weed the carrots.

Chard

We sow chard (and leaf beet, the type of chard closest to spinach) on March 24, but you can start earlier if you want earlier harvests. Chard seed will germinate from 41°F (5°C) to 95°F (35°C), and the best temperature is 86°F (30°C), when it needs only 4 days. Our goal is to use chard as our main summer leafy green after the kale, collards, broccoli and Asian greens have all bolted. In spring we usually have lots of cabbage, broccoli, collards and kale. Maybe we should do some earlier chard this year to make up for lack of broccoli and troubles with cabbage and over wintered kale?

Collards and kale
Young collard plant (Morris Heading, I think) Pam Dawling

In mid-March we will be transplanting Vates kale and Champion or Georgia Green collards directly from the soil in our hoophouse out into the garden. We usually grow Morris Heading collards but this year we are trying something different. We’ll use rowcover for the first few weeks. I have written before about bare-root transplants. This method saves us a lot of time, and saves greenhouse space. See Workhorse Crops in February for details about sowing these crops in the hoophouse.

Potatoes

Another mid-March task for us is potato planting. I wrote a whole series about every stage of potato growing last year. So I won’t say more here.

Hoophouse beans
Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers in June.
Photo Alexis Yamashita

We don’t grow green bush beans in our hoophouse every year, but this year we will. As with other late winter/early spring hoophouse crops, we sow beans in our hoophouse a month earlier than we can sow outside. We aim to sow in the hoophouse on March 20. Of course, if it is particularly cold then, we will wait. We’ve found that beans sprawl more in our hoophouse, so we buy an upright fast-maturing variety, such as Strike.  We’ve also found that the edge beds are too cold for beans in late March, so if the crop rotation would have us use an edge bed, we sow beets or some other crop instead. We will use thick rowcover on nights that are forecast to be frosty outdoors. See mention of hoophouse beans in January.

Hoophouse tomatoes
March hoophouse bed prepared for tomato transplants – holes dug, compost added.
Photo Wren Vile

Mid-March is our target transplanting time for tomatoes in the hoophouse. We grow two beds, one of earlies (less than 71 days) and one bed of reliable favorites (Tropic, Jubilee) along with two plants each of other varieties we like or are trying out. Each 96ft (29 m) bed has two cherry or grape tomato varieties, with two plants of each. We plant the shortest varieties at the east end and the tallest (the cherries) at the west end, so that all the plants get the best possible light. (Our hoophouse has the long walls on the south and north.) We update our Tomato Rampancy Rating list each year.

This year in the early bed, we are growing Five Star Grape 62d, Sun Gold 57d, Garden Peach 71d, Mountain Magic 66d, Stupice 62d and Glacier 56d. Mountain Magic is a new favorite (it doesn’t suffer from green/yellow shoulders) and we have increased the number of those plants, reducing numbers of Stupice and Glacier.

Hoophouse tomatoes with yellow shoulders. Glacier or Stupice.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the other bed we are growing Cherry Bomb 64d, Black Cherry 64-75d, Geronimo78d, Striped German 78d, Amy’s Sugar Gem 75d, Green Zebra 72-86d, Cherokee Purple 72-85d, Tropic 80d, Jubilee 80d, Estiva 70d, Pink Boar 75d, and Mountain Fresh Plus 75d.

We use the Florida string-weaving (or basket-weaving) technique to support our plants. More about that task in future.

Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In March we will sow our hoophouse cucumbers and squash, and our outdoor peppers, eggplant, maincrop tomatoes, and our first outdoor zucchini and summer squash. And some non-workhorse crops. Also, we start our sweet potato slips. I covered growing sweet potato slips in another post. On March 24 we start our chard, as already mentioned.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in March

Collards and Kale can be harvested outdoors here in March, from overwintered plants. This past fall, we were late getting our kale established and the combination of a mild December and a cold January has damaged them badly. We had 3 nights in January down to 10°F (-12°C). Normally we can harvest those beds once a week each in March. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one!

Garlic scallions prepared for sale. Typepad.com

Garlic scallions are ready to harvest here from mid-March. These baby garlic plants offer a welcome change form leafy greens and root vegetables. We start to dig the plants once the leaves have reached 7” (18 cm). Wash and trim, cook and enjoy! Yes, you can eat them raw if you like! Some years we have made a big planting, and it has provided for us into May (when they are starting to bulb).

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in March

Our Red and White Russian kales are now producing well. These are Siberian-type kales, that keep growing (a bit!) in cold weather. We harvest the outer leaves and stand them on end in a bucket in a little water. The wilt very easily, so we try to keep them in the shade and get them to the cooler promptly.

White Russian kale ready for harvest in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

Bulls blood beet greens, chard, and some greens not in our Workhorse group, (turnip greens, and spinach) are still going strong. Our experimental carrots are still doing OK, although I’m not a fan of giving them hoophouse space for such a long time with no harvests. I think we would have done better to harvest them in December. The foliage is getting bedraggled, and I fear the roots are getting woody and less sweet. This is all an experiment by one of the others on the crew, who will be studying the results.

Workhorse Crops from Storage in March

In March we can eat carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and cabbage from storage, while they last. We do still have potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Also we have frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

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

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for March: DIY Weather Forecasting

Learn your local weather patterns by keeping records of daily max and min temperatures and rainfall, and watching what happens.

Our mid-Atlantic climate is controlled by three weather systems, mainly by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer, and recurrent waves of cold Canadian air in winter.

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

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

We use Wunderground forecasts, but subtract 5F° (2.5C°) from their forecast night lows for our nearest town, and mentally downgrade the chance of rain by 10%, as rain often passes us by as it scoots along the river valley north of us. 3/30 pm in winter is a good time to look at the night forecast.

WeatherSpark is a great resource. You can enter your zipcode or town and discover a large range of charts and graphs about weather in your area. It will help you learn what to expect.

Immature frosty cabbage. Photo Lori Katz

As for predicting frost, here are some of the factors to consider, that make frost more likely here:

  • If the date is after 10/14 or before 4/30 (ie within the average range for frosts here)
  • If the Wunderground forecast low for Louisa Northside is 37°F (3°C) or less.
  • If the daytime high temperature was less than 70°F (21°C).
  • If the temperature at sunset is less than 50°F (10°C).
  • If the sky is clear.
  • If the soil is dry and cool.
  • If the moon is full or new.
  • If there is little or no breeze, although if temperatures are falling fast, the wind is from NW and the sky is clear, then polar air may be moving in, and we’ll get a hard freeze.
  • If the dew point forecast is low, close to freezing, a frost is more likely. Frost is unlikely if the dew point is 43°F (6°C) or more.

Workhorse Crops for February

 

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

This is my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as January.

At last the daylight is getting noticeably longer, although we still have very cold weather. We reach 10 hours of daylight on January 21, and 11 hours on February 20. In our hoophouse we are clearing crops before they bolt, and planting some quick crops before the warm weather ones go in in March and April. In the greenhouse we are starting seedlings and clearing lettuce that is thinking about bolting. Our seed orders are arriving and we are finishing up our various planting schedules and crop maps.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in February

Young carrots after their first thinning.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Carrots

We sow carrots in mid-February, and again at the end of February. Yes, they take a long time to emerge when the soil is still so cold. But it’s a task we can get done now, and won’t have to do later, when we are busier. Carrots take 50 days to emerge at 41˚F (5˚C), (although of course it will have warmed up some before 50 days pass!); 17 days at 50˚F(10˚C); 10 days at 59˚F (15˚C); 7 days at 68˚F (20˚C); 6 at 77˚F (25˚C); 5 at 86˚F (30˚C) and don’t try hotter than that!

An EarthWay seeder, widely used for sowing small seeds like carrots.

We use an EarthWay seeder and the Light Carrot plate (although that still puts out lots of seed!) We can’t really justify the cost of a precision seeder like the Jang, for the amount we’d use it.

Asparagus

If you are planning to start a new asparagus patch, early spring is the best time to plant. This will give them as much time as possible that first year, to grow strong roots. The usual suggestion is to plant at least 10 crowns per diner.

Most growers purchase two-year-old crowns, although it is possible to grow your own asparagus from seed, if you can find seed of your preferred variety. The old OP varieties are still available, but newer all-male hybrids yield far more heavily, often more than twice as much. We chose Jersey Giant, a male hybrid resistant to asparagus rust and well-adapted to the mid-Atlantic. It produces big, tender, succulent spears each spring.

The best soil temperature for planting asparagus is 50°F (10°C) –  planting in cold soil encourages disease and offers no advantage. Remove shipped asparagus roots from the box as soon as they arrive, and untie the bundles. Don’t water them. If you need to store the roots longer than two weeks, spread them in trays or crates, in a cool, fairly dry place, until planting conditions are right. You can read more about growing asparagus in Sustainable Market Farming, and my recent article in Growing for Market magazine.

Asparagus photo by Kathryn Simmons
Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we have started a couple of flats of fast-maturing cabbage. We like Farao (60d) and Early Jersey Wakefield (63d). Both numbers are seed to harvest. Subtract 20 days if counting from transplanting to maturity.

Open flats of cabbage seedlings. The nearer flat is a 3″ deep seed flat with four rows of seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have already sown our kale and collards for outdoor spring crops, in our hoophouse. Here’s the info on that: On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed. We will transplant these outdoors as bare root transplants in mid-March.

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

We don’t sow our chard and leaf beet until 3/24, because we want them for summer greens, after the kale, collards, broccoli and Asian greens have all bolted. But you can start them earlier, if you want earlier harvests. I’ll say more next month about chard, but if you want to get a start sooner, know that the seed will germinate from 41°F (5°C) to 95°F (35°C), and the best temperature is 86°F (30°C), when it needs only 4 days to pop up.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in February

We do sow a few hoophouse greens successions during February, a row of snap peas, some lettuce mix, but nothing that qualifies as a Workhorse.

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in February

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested outdoors here in February. About once per bed during each of the coldest months, January and February. We’ll be able to harvest those beds once a week each in March. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow.

Overwintered Carrots and Cabbage are a possibility some years, but not this one! I actually prefer to get all our carrots safely harvested and stored, rather than have them still in the ground, where more things can go wrong! We have had 3 nights in January down to 10°F (-12°C), and I don’t think even Deadon cabbage would survive that many cold nights! Some of our Tadorna leeks are looking quite damaged. We don’t usually have that problem.

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests in February

Bulls blood beet greens, chard, and some greens not in our Workhorse group, (turnip greens, Yukina Savoy, spinach) are still going strong. Our experimental carrots are still doing OK, although I’m not a fan of giving them hoophouse space for such a long time with no harvests. I notice I’m slipping into mentioning non-workhorses more often now the winter is biting us.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

At last we can start harvesting our Russian kales in the hoophouse. We were late getting them established last fall, and growth has been slow. Now many of the other greens (Tokyo bekana, Napa cabbage, pak choy, the first tatsoi and the first mizuna) have all been eaten, we are very ready for the kale. Russian kale wilts easily and is best harvested into buckets as if a bouquet of flowers, with a little water in the bucket.

Workhorse Crops from storage in February

From storage in February we can eat carrots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash. Also frozen summer goodies, and pickled things, sauerkraut, pickled beans, and canned goods like salsa.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for February: Phenology

Chickweed flowers.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/S/W-CP-SMED-FL.006.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

I wrote about seed germination temperatures and phenology signs in April 2021. I have an earlier post about phenology here, and one about Harbinger Weeds of Spring.

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 calendar you will be in sync with actual conditions, which vary from year to year, and are changing over a longer time-scale.

You can learn 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 one 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.

Keeping your own phenology record is 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. Your 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.

Phenology Record

Workhorse Crops for January

Our hoophouse with a December snowfall. Pam Dawling

We’re solidly in the darker and colder half the year for our monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as December.

Winter is a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, which crops to grow, and your growing methods. Perhaps this will be your first gardening year? If so, welcome! Use the search box to find specific info, or click the blog category to find some further reading. Hopefully, we all have our garden plans made and our seeds ordered. Maybe we are already looking at a planting schedule.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in January

Potato Onions

Yellow Potato Onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In January, we can plant small small potato onions outdoors.  We prepare the bed in the late fall and mulch it with hay, to plant in January. We rake off the mulch, plant the onion bulbs and then lay the mulch back on the bed, to control weeds and somewhat to insulate the little onion bulbs. These smallest potato onions are very cold-hardy, and will grow up to produce a single 3” (7.5 cm) large onion. A few will grow and subdivide to produce more small onions. Click the link to read the details.

Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we fire up our germinator cabinets and sow our first lettuce and early cabbage (Early Jersey Wakefield and Faroa) and scallions in mid-January. The following week we sow our tomatoes to plant out in the hoophouse, and at the end of the month, spinach if we have not got enough sown in our hoophouse to transplant as bare-root transplants.

Flats of cabbage seedlings in our greenhouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in January

In the hoophouse we are sowing a second or third round of crops, mostly successions of greens and radishes. We have already pulled our first and second radishes, and some of the Asian greens.

This March we will be using a half-bed in the hoophouse for some early green bush beans. Like our other warm weather crops, these can be planted in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. Two cautions with green beans in the hoophouse: buy a very upright variety, as the plants will be more sprawling than they are outdoors. Outdoors we grow Provider and Bush Blue Lake (both very reliable and productive), and in the hoophouse we like Strike. The second bean caution is that we have found the edge beds too cold for beans when we need to sow them, in March. Don’t plant them now, but order seeds of an upright variety and plan a non-edge bed. I’ll say more in March.

We have also planned our next round of early warm-weather crops, which we will transplant in late March and early April. Tomatoes and zucchini/summer squash are on our Workhorse list

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We stop filling gaps in most of the Asian greens at the end of December, because they will start to bolt in January and/or because they are mature and we will be clearing the space to sow something else. Tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana, Pac Choi, Chinese Cabbage, Yukina Savoy, all need to be eaten during January.  We sow spinach (the Racehorse Crop) in mid-January, to transplant in the hoophouse and outdoors.

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

On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed.

See November’s information on Follow-On Crops, and Filler Greens (short rows of greens sown in October to fill unexpected spaces).

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in January

We still have workhorse crops to harvest outdoors: chard, kale and collards, and perhaps cabbages. We’re down to three of our 14 workhorse crops to harvest outdoors in January, but we have the Racehorse Crop, spinach, too, and also luscious hoophouse greens.

Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature I’ve seen it survive. We just had one night at that temperature, much colder than anything else so far this winter.

Chard can still be harvested outdoors if we covered it with hoops and rowcover. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). We have succeeded in keeping chard alive outdoors right through the winter, if we cover it.

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested in January. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow. In October, November, February and March, we can harvest leaves from these plants once a week. In December and January, once each month is more like what we can hope for. Chard and senposai do OK with only 6 leaves left.

Hoophouse Workhorse harvests in January

We are harvesting leaves from our hoophouse Bright Lights chard at an adolescent size, cutting them into ribbons, and chopping the colorful stems, for salad mixes. Later, when the days lengthen, we’ll be able to harvest leaves for cooking.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

The Red Russian and White Russian kales are ready to harvest now (we were a bit late with getting a successful sowing in September). Russian kales belong to the napus group of kales, which are better able to make growth in low light levels than oleracea types like the Vates we grow outdoors. Vates is our star outdoors, because it is more cold-hardy than any other kale I’ve found. The Russian kales have a tendency to wilt after harvesting, so we move fast and stand the leaves up in the buckets. We add some water to the buckets before rushing them to the walk-in cooler. (We do this with chard, turnip greens and Tokyo bekana too.)

The hoophouse senposai is on its third round of harvests, just two weeks after the second, which was one week after the first. This clearly demonstrated the slower rate of growth as temperatures and daylight decrease. The short days do cause plant growth to slow down, but this is not the only factor. Soil temperature is another. In our hoophouse, the soil temperature is still 50F (10C) in early January.

But hey! The length of daylight is now increasing! On the shortest day, December 21, we have 9 hours and 34 minutes of daylight, from 7.21 am to 4.55 pm. The mornings continue to get darker by a few minutes, taking a month to get back to 7.21, from a latest of 7.25 am. Meanwhile the evenings are getting lighter, gaining us 6 minutes by January 5. I’m typing this on my laptop onto a USB stick, as we are in day 3 of a power outage. I appreciate the lighter evenings! By January 21 we will be up to 10 hours of daylight!

Workhorse Crops from storage in January

Storage crops come into their own in December and January, once outdoor growth has slowed down. The flavor of stored sweet potatoes reaches its peak in late January! Besides the Workhorse Crops of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and garlic, there are many other root crops. See my posts Root Crops for the Month. Use hardneck garlic first, as it stores for only for 4-6 months. Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months.

Eat up your acorn and other pepo types of winter squash, as they store for only 1-4 months. Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole pumpkin can easily store for a whole year at room temperature. They do have hard shells and need a hefty cleaver to cut them open.

Our white potatoes are keeping well in the root cellar down at 40F-50F (5C-10C). We air it about once a week. We open the door on mild nights or chilly overcast days, depending what we get and what we need. Potatoes in storage after their first month are no longer respiring much at all. They should be dormant, and not in need of many air changes.

Sweet potatoes on a plate.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Our sweet potatoes are very delicious. We are eating about 40-50lbs (19-23 kilos) a week.

Stored cabbage can also be a boon, and this is also a good time to explore all the pickles and canned and frozen produce you put up earlier.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for January: Making Schedules.

Screenshot Crop Planning Cycle

We continue our Garden Planning, ordering seeds and planning schedules of field planting and greenhouse seedling starting. In January we start sowing seeds indoors, and need our schedule figured out for that. We also need to pay attention to germination temps for various crops, so that we get them off to a good start, matched with crops needing similar temperatures in each germination cabinet.

Workhorse Crops for December

Multicolored chard from our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve entered the colder half the year for this monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops: asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash. These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions.

I hope this blogpost series will help you become more productive and profitable (if selling) as you go into winter. Maybe you gardened for the first time this year, or expanded production in spring (orders to seed companies suggest many people did!) Maybe you have less time at home than you expected when you started planting in spring. Winter brings a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, your crops, and your methods.

You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as November.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in December

If you are in a warmer climate than our zone 7a, you may still have the chance to plant garlic.  See Workhorse Crops for November.

Garlic scallions prepared for sale. Typepad.com

Garlic scallions

We could still plant garlic scallions in December. See Garlic Scallions and  October’s Workhorse Crops  post for information about planting garlic scallions (baby garlic plants).

Garlic scallions can be grown at many times of year. This is news to many of us! By planting later it is possible to extend the garlic scallion harvest period out later. It is important to plant them in conditions where they can grow some good roots before getting too cold. Roots can grow whenever the soil is not frozen. Tops grow whenever the air is above 40°F (4.5°C) Planting in a hoophouse in November or December could possibly provide earlier garlic scallions then planting outdoors in early November. Because the plants are growing faster in warmer conditions. I have not tried this myself yet.

Bulb formation and drying down of bulb garlic is controlled by daylength, but because you do not need bulbing and drying down, all sorts of dates are possible!

Yellow potato onions.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Potato Onions

We could plant small and medium-sized potato onions outdoors in December.  We have usually also prepared a bed and mulched it with hay, to plant the small potato onions in January. Click the links to get the details.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in December

In the hoophouse we now have all the space fully planted. We intend to do this by November 20 each year, or earlier. We are starting to plant a second round of crops, mostly successions of greens and radishes. We have already pulled our first radishes (which sound like they are sneaking their way into being classified as a workhorse crop!)

Unusually, this fall, we found ourselves with some open space during October and November. I am pulling together information on fast crops we could grow in future years, before the late November and early December crops.

Once we have our hoophouse fully planted, we replace any crop we harvest, keeping all the space fully used. See November’s information on Follow-On Crops, and Filler Greens (short rows of greens sown in October to fill unexpected spaces.

Vates kale – our winter outdoor favorite.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in December

We can still have plentiful quantities of workhorse crops to harvest outdoors: cabbage, carrots, chard, kale and collards, and also luscious hoophouse greens. Only four of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested outdoors in December, but the quantities are good, and we have the Racehorse Crop, spinach, too

We had our first frost of 2021 on November 3 – our latest first frost in the past fifteen years (approximately) has been November 15 2019.

Cabbage We harvest fall-planted cabbage from September 25 until November 30, or perhaps early December in milder years. Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature I’ve seen it survive.

Carrots can be harvested in December, if we didn’t finish the job in November and we don’t want to risk feeding voles by leaving the carrots in the ground over the winter.

Chard can still be harvested outdoors if we covered it with hoops and rowcover. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). We have succeeded in keeping chard alive outdoors right through the winter, if we cover it. This year, we have abandoned it, as we ate so much chard through the summer and got tired of it! The chard did very well, and we lacked other summer greens like stored spring cabbages, and fall broccoli.

Alabama Blue collards.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested in December. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow. Chard and senposai do OK with only 6 leaves left.

Hoophouse chard in December.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Workhorse harvests in December

We have started harvesting our hoophouse Bright Lights chard in small amounts, cutting the leaves into ribbons, and chopping the colorful stems, for salad mixes.

The Red Russian and White Russian kales are usually ready from early December. This year we suffered from poor germination (old seed!) and the later resows are still too small. We have plenty of other greens to eat, from outdoors, and the hoophouse senposai is on its second round of harvests, just one week after the first.

Workhorse Crops from storage in December

Storage crops start to come into their own in December as outdoor growth slows down. Besides the Workhorse Crops of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and garlic, there are many root crops. See my posts Root Crops for the Month. Use hardneck garlic first, as it stores for only for 4-6 months. Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months.

Know your winter squash! Use the ones with the shortest storage life first (and any damaged squash that won’t store longer). Acorn and other pepo types of winter squash store for 1-4 months; Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole pumpkin can easily store for a whole year at room temperature.

Our white potatoes were sorted two weeks after the harvest. This one sorting makes a lot of difference to the quality and quantity of potatoes we will be able to eat. After two weeks, very little further rotting starts up. We cool the root cellar down to 50F after the first month, then to 40F, airing once a week (or less if cooling is not needed).

Sweet potatoes stored in off-duty wood seed flats.
Credit Nina Gentle

Our sweet potatoes are fully cured and delicious. We grow 4 kinds: Georgia Jet and Beauregard in roughly equal amounts, to hedge our bets; and two unnamed varieties we call Bill Shane’s White and Jubilee, in small quantities simply to preserve the genetic diversity. Georgia Jet is a bit faster (90 days compared to 100 days) and usually yields a little better for us than Beauregard.  Some New York growers report problems with Georgia Jet due to soft rots and malformed roots. Most growers really like this variety. Beauregard has light rose, red-orange or copper skin, dark orange flesh, uniformly shaped roots. Georgia Jet has a skin that is red-purple. I sometimes find the roots hard to tell apart when we have accidentally mixed them.

Garlic shoots poking through the mulch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for December

One task for us this month is to Free Trapped Garlic Shoots

14-16 days after planting, when we can see that more than half of the shoots have emerged, we free any garlic shoots trapped under particularly thick clumps of mulch. We investigate the spots where there should be a plant but isn’t. Ours are planted 5” (13 cm) apart. If we find garlic tops, we simply leave part of them exposed to the light. They will sort themselves out. We don’t leave any soil exposed, because we don’t want weeds to grow. This needs to be a fast-moving, efficient task, as there are thousands of plants. It’s also important to be patient and optimistic, and not start this job too early. The goal is to free the shoots that wouldn’t make it out unaided. Not to prematurely expose them all.

In December we continue Planning, including insurance crops. We calculate how much seed to buy, browse the catalogs, balancing trying different varieties on a small scale, and largely sticking to known successful varieties. See my recent post Reading Between the Lines in the Seed Catalogs. We hope to get our seed orders placed before the end of December. Since the Covid pandemic, lots more people have started growing food. This has led to some seed shortages. So if your heart is set on certain crops or certain varieties, order early to avoid disappointment. And to spread out the massive workload that the people working packing and shipping your seeds are dealing with. Appreciate them!

Workhorse Crops for November

Planting garlic

Here’s another episode in my monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops: asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash. These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions. We’re half-way through the year for this series, and entering the colder half.

I hope this focused series will help you become more productive and profitable (if selling) as you go into winter. Maybe you gardened for the first time this year, or expanded production in spring (orders to seed companies suggest many people did!) Maybe you have less time at home than you expected when you started planting in spring. Winter brings a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, your crops, and your methods.

You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as October.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in November

November in central Virginia is the time to plant garlic, but not much else outdoors. We could also plant garlic scallions and medium-sized potato onions.

In the hoophouse we are working to get all the space fully planted. We intend to do this by November 20. The really busy hoophouse planting month of October is successfully behind us. This year we are trying some carrots (we sowed those in September). We have plenty of other crops that don’t qualify as workhorses too!

Garlic

When to plant garlic

  • Fall-planting is best. Garlic emerges quickly in the fall
  • 9 am soil temperature 50°F (10°C) at 4” (10 cm) deep. We plant in early November. If the fall is unusually warm, wait a week.
  • Roots grow whenever the ground is not frozen
  • Tops grow whenever the temperature is above 40°F (4.5°C).

I have written a lot about garlic. Here are links to the most timely ones.

14-16 days after planting, when we can see a lot of emerged shoots, we go back to the garlic beds and free any shoots trapped under particularly thick clumps of mulch. We do this by exploring the spots where there should be a plant but isn’t. If we find garlic tops, we simply leave part of them exposed to the light. They will sort themselves out. We don’t leave any soil exposed.

Garlic scallions ready for harvest in early spring.
Photo Wren Vile

Garlic scallions

Garlic scallions are immature garlic plants, mostly leaves, pulled up before they make bulbs. They are the garlic equivalent of onion scallions (bunching onions, spring onions, escallions).

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

Since last month’s post, I remembered learning that you can also grow garlic scallions from surplus or culled bulbs, simply planting the whole bulbs and growing ready-made bunches of scallions! This could be useful if you have small bulbs that no one wants to deal with, or you have some that have started sprouting in storage.

Some growers find they make more money from garlic scallions than from bulb garlic, partly because they don’t have the costs of curing and drying the bulbs! Plus you have a tasty crop to eat and sell in spring, when choices are often restricted to overwintered leafy greens and stored roots. Maybe you have already eaten or sold all your bulb garlic by then.

Some people are working to extend the garlic scallion season. By planting later it is possible to stretch the harvest period out later. Softneck garlic varieties can make worthwhile growth for scallions even if planted after the start of January. See Plant garlic scallions from softneck varieties (Alliums for February). Planting in a hoophouse in November could possibly provide earlier garlic scallions (growing faster in warmer conditions). By planting in a hoophouse, more of the year opens up as a planting season.

I encourage you to experiment with planting a few cloves at different times of year and record your results. Because you do not need to work with the right times for bulbing and drying down, all sorts of dates are possible!

For information about harvesting garlic scallions, see my post Alliums for March. With a last frost date of 20–30 April, we harvest garlic scallions March 10 to April 30 in central Virginia, or even into May, if our supply lasts out, and we don’t need the space for something else.

Two beds of potato onions in spring, of different planting dates.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Potato onions

I’m cheating here, as these aren’t on the Workhorse list, but November is a good time to plant medium-sized potato onions (a type of multiplier onions). See Alliums for November and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Garlic and Perennial Onion Growing Guide.

Spinach, the Racehorse

I didn’t include spinach in my Workhorse Crops list, because it’s more of a Racehorse. It does grow quickly, but in spring it bolts quickly. And in September, when we want to sow spinach, we are challenged by soil temperatures that are too hot. It’s a valuable crop under the right conditions. For more, search “spinach”.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in November

We only have a few small areas of crops to plant in November, and none of those crops qualify as Workhorses. Once we have our hoophouse fully planted, we try to keep it that way. I don’t mean we treat it as a museum and touch nothing! I mean we replace any crop we harvest. In some cases, this is part of our plan, with Follow-On crops, as soon as one crop is over.

Filler greens: short rows of Tokyo bekana, Yukina Savoy and senposai used to fill gaps in the winter hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In other cases it is by using our Filler Greens, short rows of greens that we sow in October in anticipation of some unexpected spaces opening up. You could have plug flats of seedlings for this, but we prefer bare-root transplants, as they are easier to take care of (roots go deep into the soil, and no special watering is needed. If it happens that we don’t transplant them all, we can simply harvest the overgrown seedlings to eat as salad.

A misty November morning in the hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Follow On Crops

A sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time.

  • Nov 17: We follow our 1st radishes with 3rd scallions
  • Dec 23: 1st baby brassica salad mix with 5th radishes
  • Dec 31: Some of our 1st spinach with our 2nd baby lettuce mix
  • Jan 15: Our 1st tatsoi with our 4th spinach
  • Jan 16: Our Tokyo Bekana with spinach for planting outdoors
  • Jan 24: Our pak choy & Chinese cabbage with kale & collards for outdoors
  • Feb 1: Our 2nd radishes with our 2nd baby brassica salad mix
  • Feb 1: Our 1st Yukina Savoy with our 3rd mizuna/frilly mustards
  • Feb 1: Some of our 1st turnips with our 3rd baby lettuce mix
  • Feb 1: More of our 1st spinach with dwarf snap peas
Carrot harvest cart
Photo Mari Korsbrekke

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in November

As I write this, we have not yet had a frost. Four of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested in November.

Cabbage We harvest fall planted cabbage from September 25 until November 30.

Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C).

Carrots: In November we harvest our huge patch of fall carrots, sown at the beginning of August. Some years we have 30 bags of 50 pounds to feed 100 people! But we have had to downsize the garden due to a shortage of workers. I have written about carrot harvest here. We are not particularly fast at carrot prepping. We don’t have a drum root washer. It takes us about 5-6 people hours to get a big (Garden Way) cartful of harvested carrots trimmed, washed, sorted and bagged.

Bucket lid with holes for sorting root vegetables for storage.
Photo Wren Vile

In November it is generally too late for us to sow cover crops, and we don’t want to leave the carrot beds bare all winter. To avoid erosion, we protect the soil by taking the carrot tops back and spreading them out over the beds.

Chard can still be harvested. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). To keep chard alive outdoors over the winter, you can use hoops and rowcover in climates of winter-hardiness zone 6 or warmer. In colder zones, once the temperatures get down near the killing numbers mentioned, make one last harvest, cutting all the leaves just above the growing point. Then pile up mulch over the plants until spring. You could cover the whole heap with rowcover for extra protection. We can soon start harvesting our hoophouse Bright Lights chard in small amounts.

Collards can be harvested in November.

Kale can also be lightly harvested.

Hoophouse Workhorse Harvests

Our first planting of chard in the hoophouse is ready to start harvesting in mid-November, 61 days after sowing. The Russian kales are not usually ready until early December. We have plenty of other greens to eat.

Sweet potatoes on a plate.
Photo Brittany Lewis

From storage: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots, and perhaps garlic.

Store garlic above 60°F (15.5°C) or 32°F-40°F (0°C-4.5°C). Never 40°F -56°F (4.5°C-13°C). Last week I said it was OK to store garlic at 32°F -50°F, but newer info says 32°F -40°F (0°C-4.5°C). is better. I’ll edit the previous post. Also avoid reversals of temperature (warm conditions after cooler ones)

Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months. Hardneck only for 4-6 months.

Sorting potatoes two weeks after harvest, to remove problems.
Photo Wren Vile

With winter squash, use the ones with the shortest storage life first. Pepo types (Acorn) of winter squash store for 1-4 months; Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole (which has a very hard shell) can easily store for a whole year at room temperature.

Our white potatoes will need sorting two weeks after the harvest. This one sorting makes a lot of difference to the quality and quantity of potatoes we will be able to eat. After two weeks, very little further rotting starts up. We also need to cool the root cellar down to 50F after the first month, then to 40F, airing once a week (or less if cooling is not needed).

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for November:

Crop Review, Research, Conferences

Popping garlic at our Crop Review meeting.
Photo Bell Oaks

Crop Review

Every November our garden crew gathers to review how the year went, and what might be done differently next year. See my posts on Crop Review Meetings and here. We usually pop our garlic bulbs apart for planting we sit around talking.

If we have had a particularly difficult year we might look at reducing the number of crops grown. We do this using a points system. See this post. Inevitably, we also have some ideas of new crops we’d like to try, or new varieties of familiar crops. Or new growing methods. This is a good time of year to note down all the suggestions, before the actual plans are made and seeds ordered. See my post How to decide which vegetable crops to grow.

Research

This is also a good time of year to research and evaluate new ideas. Perhaps you made some notes during the year, on your planting schedule.

Conferences

Winter conferences used to be more of a Thing, when we traveled to meet up regionally, browse bookstalls, listen to speakers, meet old friends, make new ones, swap stories, and get re-inspired for another year of hard work. Perhaps we’ll be able to enjoy in-person conferences again in a few months. Meanwhile see my Events Page for presentations I am offering virtually and in the mid-Atlantic. Currently there are more virtual online conferences. These don’t satisfy the itch to talk with other live growers, but many are recorded and they are easier to fit into our schedules. And they do save money. And as Mother Earth News says of their Online Workshops, you can bring your dog!

 

 

Workhorse Crops for October

 

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

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

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

Workhorse Crops to Plant in October

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

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

Chard:

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

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

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

Collards

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

Kale

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

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

Garlic scallions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napa Chinese cabbage

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

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

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in October

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

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

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

Deadon cabbage
Credit Johnnys Selected Seeds

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

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

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

Collards can be harvested in October.

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

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

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

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

Sweet Potato harvest at Twin Oaks. Photo McCune Porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food processing is still busy.

Workhorse Crops Special Topic

Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop
Photo by McCune Porter

Cover Crops

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

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

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

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

For more details, see my post Planning Winter Cover Crops

Harvesting and Storing Winter Squash

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

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

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

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

Pepo Squashes are ready soonest

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

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

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

Maxima Squash

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

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

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

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

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

Moschata squash

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

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

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

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

Mixta (Agyrosperma) Squash

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

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

Curing and Storing

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

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

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

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

More Information:

Roxbury Harvest Manual 2012

ATTRA Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production

Workhorse Crops for September

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

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

Workhorse Crops to Plant in September

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

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

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

Cabbage and Collards:

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

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

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

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

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

Carrots

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

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

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

Kale:

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

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

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

An outdoor bed of young Vates kale Photo Kathryn Simmons

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

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

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in September

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

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

Plenty of beans to eat in September.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama Blue collards.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

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

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

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fine winter squash medley.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

ATTRA Organic Pumpkin and Winter Squash Marketing and Production

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

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

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

Workhorse Crops Special Topic:                    Garlic Storage

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

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