Favorite posts of 2023: soil, winter, garlic, melons, beans, aphids

I’m hunkered down on this rainy January day, in expectation of high winds and lots of rain. I’ve battened down the hoophouse and I’m working to get a blog post out before the electric coop’s warning of possible extended power outages comes true!

One of many wheelbarrows full of compost we spread on our raised beds every year.
Photo Wren Vile

In the past year, my top post has been Soil Tests and High Phosphorus Levels. Clearly a worrying topic for those who like me, once though compost should be applied as generously as possible. I wrote this post in 2017, and it’s still an issue many people want to learn about.

The second highest number of views goes to Which Vegetables are Genetically Modified (GMOs)? Another worrying topic.

Ugly, but not dead yet! Tokyo bekana outdoors on January 7, 2024 after several cold nights, at least two at 20F, two at 18F, one each at 15F and 12F. Photo Pam Dawling

In third place  is Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021, and in fourth place is Winter-Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016. The 2018 version is in 8th place. My highest number of views in a single day came when Texas had that awful very cold weather, in mid-February 2021, and farmers and gardeners needed to find out in a hurry which crops to try to protect, which to give up on, and which needed no attention.

Fifth place goes to one of my many garlic posts: Garlic Scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest. Scapes, the flower stems of hard-neck garlic, are an underappreciated auxiliary crop. They are not just a freebie extra, but removing them helps the garlic bulbs grow bigger. Pulling scapes would be worthwhile even if you didn’t use them.

Pulling garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

Cover Crops in Summer is number 6 in popularity. Sunn hemp is joining our list of favorites, along with buckwheat and soy.

Root Cellar Potato Storage comes in at number 7. That’s from 2018. Root cellars haven’t changed!

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle

Harvesting Melons is next. I remember when I didn’t know what “full slip” meant. I found out and decided to make a post, reckoning many other people didn’t know either. That’s a heritage post! From 2012, the year I started this site.

Young bush bean plants.
Photo Pam Dawling

Green Beans All Summer is close behind. The post includes an unusual method of planting bean seed through plastic mulch, as well as early season and late season beans, and scheduling sowings for continuous harvests all summer.

Growing Flowers to Attract Aphid Predators rounds out the list. The post includes info and photos of many annual flowers we tried for our hoophouse. Most of them did not flower early enough to deal with the January and February aphids that have no ladybugs to eat them. We have established several perennial yarrow plants, and have hopes for those this year. We’ve also come to appreciate the value of bolted brassicas, such as tatsoi, turnips, and senposai. Their flowers do attract beneficials.

Leave a comment if your favorite didn’t make the top ten, or if there is a topic you’d like me to cover, or update, or give more details on.

Starting Seedlings

Seed flats in the greenhouse
Seed flats in the greenhouse

We’ve been starting seedlings since late January, and the greenhouse is filling up with flats of lettuce, cabbage, kohlrabi, spinach, scallions and broccoli. We’re eating our way through the lettuces that grew overwinter in the compost in the block-work greenhouse beds, and shoveling out the compost to fill our flats. All our seedlings are grown in 100% home-made compost. We screen compost to fill the beds in September and transplant lettuce there in October. When we need the compost for the seedlings, it has mellowed nicely and has plenty of worms. This beats buying in bags of compost, or chipping lumps off a heap of frozen compost outdoors in January! Our greenhouse has a masonry north wall and a patio-door south wall. It has no heating apart from the sun (this is Zone 7). This space is warm enough and just big enough for all our seedlings once they have emerged. For growing-on the very early tomatoes and peppers, destined for our hoophouse, we use an electric heat mat and a plastic low tunnel in one corner of the greenhouse. Many seeds benefit from some heat during germination and are then moved into slightly less warm conditions to continue growing. This means it’s possible to heat a relatively small space just to germinate the seeds in. We use two broken refrigerators as insulated cabinets, with extra shelves added. A single incandescent lightbulb in each supplies both the light and the heat (we change the wattage depending on what temperature we’re aiming for). Some people construct an insulated cabinet from scratch, with fluorescent lights suspended above the flats.

Our coldframes and greenhouse
Our coldframes and greenhouse

We use traditional coldframes for “hardening-off” our plants (helping them adjust to cooler, brighter, breezier conditions). They are rectangles of dry-stacked cinder blocks, with lids of woodframed fiberglass. Having heavy flats of plants at ground level is less than ideal for anyone over thirty-five! Shade houses and single-layer poly hoop structures with ventable sidewalls and benches for the flats are a nicer option. Some growers report that some pests are less trouble when flats are up on benches. Others say flats on the ground produce better quality plants. According to the nighttime temperatures, we cover the coldframes with rowcover for 32°F–38°F (0°–3°C), add the lids for 15°F–32°F (–9°C–0°C) and roll quilts on top if it might go below 15°F (–9°C). For brassicas, lettuce and our paste tomatoes (a big planting), we use open flats — simple wooden boxes. The transplant flat size is 12″ × 24″ × 4″ deep (30 × 60 × 10 cm). It holds 40 plants, “spotted” or pricked out in a hexagonal pattern, using a dibble board. For sowing, we use shallower 3″ (7.5 cm) flats. Usually we sow four rows lengthwise in each seedling flat. We reckon we can get about six transplant flats from each seedling flat. This allows for throwing out any wimpy seedlings, and lets us start a higher number of plants in a smaller space. Because we transplant by hand, and because we hate to throw plastic away (or spend money when we don’t need to), we use a range of plastic plant containers. For crops where we are growing only a small number of plants of each variety, we use six- or nine-packs, or a plug flat divided into smaller units.

One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart
One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart

The first crops sown are not necessarily the first ones planted out. Our spinach gets sown Jan 24 and transplanted out 4 weeks later. The early tomatoes get planted in the hoophouse at 6 weeks of age (slower-growing peppers go in at 7.5 weeks with rowcover at the ready!). Lettuce goes outdoors after 6.5 weeks, cabbage after 7.5 weeks, cipollini mini-onions after 8 weeks. These are early season timings and as the days warm up and get longer, seedlings grow more quickly. Being a few days later sowing something in early spring makes little difference, as later sowings can catch up by growing faster in the warmer weather. If the spring is cold and late, you may find your greenhouse packed to the gills with flats you don’t want to take outside. We try to put the faster-maturing crops near the doors and keep the open flats, which will need spotting-out, near the accessible north side. But let’s not complain about the bounty of so many plants! Spring is an exciting time of year, full of new growth and new potential. Working in the greenhouse with tiny plants on a sunny day when it’s cold outside is a special treat.

Twin Oaks September Garden Calendar

Welcome to Twin Oaks!
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

THE SECOND SPRING

Here’s our Garden Task List for September: 

During the month

Weed and thin carrots and brassicas (kale to 12”).

Lettuce Factory: Sow hardy lettuce every 2 days till 21st, (3 rows/planting) then every 3 days. Sow #34-46 this month. Transplant 120 every 3-5 days (1/3 bed) #27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 for last outdoor planting (Dec harvest). Transplant  #34, 35, 36  9/24-9/30 for frames

Root cellar: air and cool to 60°F by mid-September

Collect seed from Roma tomatoes if necessary.

Screen compost and fill old greenhouse beds before October, for winter lettuce and spring seed compost.

Early Sept: Prepare and plant new strawberry beds if not done in late August, using rooted potted runners or plants carefully thinned from last year’s beds (see August for details).

Transplant collards and kale if necessary. Transplant lettuce #27, 28, 29, 30.

Retrieve spinach and onion seeds from the freezer. After acclimating spinach seeds, sprout 4oz/bed (1 cup/10,000 seeds) for spinach #1 in fridge for one week, then direct sow (if <68°F, and dead nettle has germinated). If still hot, sow (preferably pre-sprouted) spinach in Speedling flats in float tank. 9/20 is last sowing date for fall harvesting. [Could broadcast oats into spinach at planting time for weed control & cold weather protection.]

Sow if not done already: kale and collards by 9/15; turnips by 9/30; radishes, kohlrabi, daikon and other winter radish, miscellaneous fall greens, scallions.

Plant large potato onions this month or early in October, at 8” (wider if supply limited). Cover with ½-1” soil, mulch with hay.

2nd fall disking: Watermelon plot when 800 have been harvested. Roll up drip tape first, or move to new strawberries.

Mid Sept: 7-14 Sept is the best time to sow vetch & rye, 1:2, 2# of mix/1000 sq ft (75#/acre) on old spring broccoli patch; crimson clover and rye, 1:2, at 55#/acre.

Transplant lettuce #31, 32.

Sow 1st sowing of hoophouse seedlings (hoop and cover).

Bring 6 tractor buckets compost to hoophouse for fertilizing fall and winter crops.

Move stored onions from basement to fridge, after apples peak in mid-September, and space available.

3rd fall disking: corn #3, #4, #5. Part of corn #3 plot may be used for new strawberry beds.

Late Sept: Sow spinach #2 for spring harvesting (9/20-9/30), and 2nd sowing of hoophouse seedlings and cover.

Transplant kale for spring, filling gaps; lettuce #33, finishing up the last outdoor bed; [#34, 35 & 36 in cold frames?] Plant large potato onions (>2”) if not done earlier.

Move garlic from basement to fridge late September-late Oct as needed to make room for winter squash.

Weeding: this is a good catch up time on weeding in the raised beds.

4th fall disking and seeding: Sow cover crops wherever possible (in unused raised beds too). The last chance for oats is early Sept (9/15??). Can sow winter wheat (winter-killed in zone 4) or winter barley (dies in zone 6) if oat planting date missed. (Oats winter-kill in zone 8). Can sow hardy Austrian winter peas in late Sept at 8oz/100sq.ft. with rye. Can sow red clover this month.

Bush-hog late corn if undersown with oats and soy cover crop.

Perennials: New strawberry beds: Prepare and plant by mid-September if not done in late August. Weed strawberries. Could till up grass in grape alley & sow clover if not done in March. If clover sown earlier, let it seed.

Harvest and store winter squash: Acorn (pepo) types (stem still green, ground spot “earthy” or orange), store 1-4 months; Maximas: Cha Cha, Jarrahdale, Kabocha (stem 75% corky) store 3-5 months; Moschatas: Butternuts, Cheese (peanut colored skin, no mottling or streaks) store 4-8 months, or more. Leave on live vines as long as possible, avoiding frost on fruits. Cut leaving long stem using pruners; handle gently.

September Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, beets and beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, Chinese cabbage, corn, cow peas, cukes, edamame, eggplant, horseradish,leeks, lettuce, limas, maruba santoh, okra, pak choy, peppers, hot peppers,radishes, Romas, scallions, senposai, summer squash, Tokyo bekana, tomatoes, turnips, watermelons, winter squash, yukina savoy, zucchini.  It is possible to lightly harvest rhubarb during September, if wanted.