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.
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!
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.
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!
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).
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)
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.
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.
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 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.