How to decide which vegetable crops to grow

Don't have more work than you can bear. Photo Bridget Aleshire Credit Bridget Aleshire
Don’t have more work than you can bear.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

It’s late August, and we have a grueling amount of work. Help is thin on the ground, crops need harvesting, weeds need dealing with, fall planting for winter crops is calling us. I’m sure we’re not the only growers this happens to. We need to assess which crops are our priority.

Sometimes you have the time and space to grow everything you want. That’s wonderful! Other times, either land or labor is in short supply (or both). What to do? How do you decide which crops to grow? I’ve looked at this problem several times, and taken note when other farmer/writers tackle the topic.

Sometimes it is possible to reduce waste, increase productivity, increase efficiency, make more use of crops you have in abundance. If space is short you can sometimes plant closer, use transplants rather than direct seed, plant faster-maturing varieties, relay-plant one crop while the previous one is still growing, interplant a tall crop in a bed of a short crop, use rowcover to speed up maturity, and various other tricks of the trade. Here I am going to focus on shortage of time/shortage of labor, rather than shortage of land.

As in all farming, it’s best to make a plan that fits your resources. But sometimes the situation changes and less time is available than you thought. In years when we’ve been short of labor we have created a “Can’t do it all” list. We list some labor intensive crops along with their respective “decision dates,” the month that it is most labor-intensive for that crop, how expensive it would be for us to buy that crop rather than grow our own, and a few other factors. We list the crops in date order of Decision Time, then as each date approaches we review our situation and vote Keep, Down (Less) or Out. This method enables us to make one decision at a time, in a straightforward way, and not go insane.

Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes Credit Ezra Freeman
Late sweet corn and sweet potatoes
Credit Ezra Freeman

Such a list leaves the door open for possible upturns of fortune later in the year. It’s less distressing to take one bite at a time than to take a big decision when you already are struggling to cope with some big calamity having happened. When is it time to cut your losses? Farming never stands still, sometimes the best way to catch up with an interminable list is to remove some items, whether you’ve done them or not. I wrote about this in the February 2013 issue of Growing for Market: Making good decisions under pressure.

Having some clear crop characteristics to base our decisions on really makes the sad task easier. The process led me to look out for information from other growers on what informs their decisions. This led to a much longer piece of writing that is too long for here. I’ll cut to the chase.

Factors to consider

Putting together various ideas, here’s my list of pointers. First be clear about your farming goals – some of the factors below will be more important to some growers than to others. Rearrange the list to suit your farm, then award each crop a point for each Yes. Knock out the crops with fewest Yeses.

  1. Is it labor efficient? (Some space-hogging crops like sweet corn are not labor intensive)
  2. Does the intense work for this crop come in at a less-busy time of year?
  3. Is this crop fast-maturing? (If labor is short, weed control might be an issue for a slow-growing crop, even if space isn’t)
  4. Is it high yielding for the space occupied (does it produce one vegetable head or 1 pound of produce, per square foot or1/2 pound/row foot)?
  5. Is it high yielding for the labor intensiveness? (Okra doesn’t provide much food for the space or the time)
  6. Does it provide multiple harvests from a single planting?
  7. Is there minimal wastage/ maximum saleable quality of the harvested crop?
  8. Does the crop require minimal time to process to be ready for sale?
  9. If you are selling, does it bring a high price, above $4 per pound?
  10. If you are growing for a household, or a non-profit, or considering buying wholesale from another farmer for your CSA: Is it expensive to replace?
  11. Is it popular (do you have a good market for it)?
  12. Is it reliably easy to grow?
  13. Is it fun or pleasantly challenging to grow?
  14. Is it forgiving of difficult weather?
  15. Is it a staple?
  16. Does it provide food at times of year when other crops are scarce?
  17. Is it an “insurance crop” which provides harvests even if other crops fail? (chard, storage root vegetables)
  18. Does it store well/easily?
  19. Does it help provide your land with a good crop rotation?
  20. Are there high pesticide levels in the commercial non-organic crop (if that’s your alternative source)? Is it in the Dirty Dozen?
  21. Does it provide appealing diversity for your booth or CSA boxes?
  22. Are you relying on this crop for personal sustenance?
  23. Is it nutritionally dense or important (a protein crop, an oil crop, a mid-winter crop?)
Celery is high on the "Dirty Dozen" list. If you eat non-organic you get lots of pesticides. We like Ventura. Photo credit Kathryn Simmons
Celery is high on the “Dirty Dozen” list. If you eat non-organic you get lots of pesticides. We like Ventura.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Three cheers for Ruby Streaks!

Ruby Streaks beside green mizuna
Ruby Streaks beside green mizuna

This week I’ve been marveling at Ruby Streaks, a beautiful ferny dark red leafy salad vegetable growing in our hoophouse. It brings a smile to winter salad mixes, a refreshing change from all the earnest shades of green. It’s beautiful, fast-growing, productive, easy to grow, cold tolerant, sweet-tasting,slightly pungent, and the seed is not expensive, what more need I say?

Ruby Streaks is so much more colorful and interesting than actual purple mizuna. For the botanists of Asian Greens among us, Ruby Streaks is a Brassica juncea, not B. rapa var japonica, like actual mizuna.

It can be grown and used as a microgreen (cut at small seedling stage), or a baby green after 21 days, and full size after 40 days. You could lightly braise it if you wanted it cooked. The leaves are finely serrated at the baby size and very similar to mizuna at full size. The stems are green and the leaf color ranges from dark green with red veins in warmer weather, to dark maroon in winter. Right now the color is incredible.

We harvest full size leaves by “crew-cutting” one side of each plant with scissors, then chopping them into short lengths. The plants regrow quickly.

It germinates quickly. Fedco warns that it bolts more readily than mizuna. We only grow it in the winter, when nothing is inclined to bolt, so this hasn’t been an issue for us. If you want to sow for spring, I’d recommend starting early in flats or pots indoors, and then transplanting at 4-5 weeks of age, about a month before the last frost date. Use rowcover for a few weeks.

To start in summer for a fall outdoor crops, you could again use flats, or you can make an outdoor nursery seed bed, protected with hoops and rowcover or ProtekNet insect netting from Fedco or from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland. In hot weather it’s easier to keep outdoor beds damp compared to flats with a small amount of soil in them. We start ours 6/26 – the same dates we use for sowing fall broccoli and cabbage. The last sowing date is about 3 months before the first frost date. Transplant at 3-4 weeks of age, preferably not older. We haven’t tested out the cold-hardiness of Ruby Streaks, but I would expect it to survive at least down to 25F (-4C), the temperature mizuna is good to.

But  the hoophouse in winter is where Ruby Streaks really shines! Double layers of inflated plastic provide enough protection in our climate for Ruby Streaks to grow all winter. And I do mean make actual growth, not just rest up waiting for spring! For winter salad mixes, we sow on 9/24 in an outdoor nursery bed, then plant into the hoophouse 10/24 (4 weeks old). We harvest that 11/1-1/25, by only cutting down one side of the plant at a time. After we clear that crop, we sow radishes in the space. We sow a second round of Ruby Streaks and mizuna inside the hoophouse 11/9, thin it into the salad, and then harvest from it 1/27-3/6.

Seed is available from FedcoJohnny’s Seeds, Territorial, High Mowing, Kitazawa, and other seed suppliers. Fedco sells 1/2 oz Organically Grown seed for $5.20.

Ruby Streaks from Fedco
Ruby Streaks from Fedco
Ruby Streaks from Johnny's Seeds
Ruby Streaks from Johnny’s Seeds

There are relatives of Ruby Streaks, such as Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills, Red Splendor (Johnny’s) and Red Rain,and the beautiful Wild Garden Pungent Mix