Cover Crops for April: before the last frost.

 

Beds of young buckwheat.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

In January I shared some resources to give the Big Picture of Cover Crops, including a compilation of slides for SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers.

In February, I described limiting winter annual weeds by sowing oats in spaces without a cover crop and no planned food crop for 6-10 weeks. Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop. Also see February’s post for the Stale Seedbed and Tarping Techniques.

In March I wrote about some options for cover crops you might be sowing then, and alternatives like a fast-growing hardy leafy vegetable or mixed Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe, a great idea if you have more than eight weeks before your main vegetable crop goes in the ground. This is where using transplants really helps increase your total food output. While the frost-tender transplants are growing indoors, you could be growing a “catch crop” outdoors in spaces that didn’t get a winter cover crop. I also talked in the March post about incorporating cover crops. Remember that if you incorporate fresh green cover crops into the soil, you will need to wait two or three weeks to sow, to give the cover crop time to break down in the soil before it can be available for your crop. Especially, wait three weeks after turning under winter rye before sowing, as it produces allelopathic compounds that can inhibit the germination and growth of small seeds. Transplants don’t suffer the same problem.

Potatoes, weeds and standing water. Until the soil drains, the potatoes cannot be hilled, and the weeds here are already large. The yield will be reduced by weeds out-competing the potatoes. Potatoes may be flamed at 6″–12″ (15–30 cm) tall, to kill weeds without damaging the potato plants. After that, flaming is not recommended.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Once we get to April here, it is too late to successfully grow oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth). But in climates like ours, we can sow winter wheat or winter rye in April – they will not head up, but will “wimp out” when it gets hot. That is, they will stop growing, so you won’t get a lot of biomass, but you will have some live roots in the soil, holding it together, taking care of the soil microfauna, and discouraging weeds form germinating. One April when our spring-planted potatoes got flooded, we transplanted potato plants to the drier end of the patch and sowed winter rye in the lower end, once the floods had subsided. This kept the soil covered, scavenged the compost we had spread for the potatoes, and was easy to deal with in July when we harvested the potatoes. It was also much more hopeful to look at an area of green cover crop than an area of green weeds!

April is too soon for us to rely on frost-tender cover crops, but by mid-April, we can sow a mix of oats and buckwheat. The oats will protect the buckwheat somewhat from the cold. if the season is warmer than average, the buckwheat will survive and smother weeds, provide pollen and nectar for beneficial insects

Here’s a lovely quote from Barbara Pleasant in SW Virginia:

“It’s April and the soil is warming up and drying out. After loosening a clump of fall-sown wheat with a digging fork, you pull up a marvelous mop of fibrous roots and shake out the soil. What crumb! The soil’s structure is nothing short of amazing! These are the moments an organic gardener lives for.”

Root systems of four grass cover crops at early stages of growth (two months in a greenhouse). From left: annual ryegrass, barley, triticale (winter biennials) and sorghum-sudangrass (summer annual). Photos by Joseph Amsili. From SARE

Depending on the stage of the year where you are, you could revisit any of the earlier posts. Here are links for each of the cover crop posts in the past year.

May: Buckwheat and Other Summer Cover Crops

June: Sunn Hemp, Soybeans, Southern Peas, and Partridge Pea, Senna Ligustrina

July: Millets and Sorghum-Sudangrass (Sudex)

August: Oats, Barley and Other Winter-Killed Cover Crops

September: Winter Wheat and Crimson Clover

October: Winter Wheat and Austrian Winter Peas

November: Winter Rye (with Austrian Winter Peas early in November)

December: Planning Winter Cover Crops

January: The Big Picture, Ponder and Plan Your Cover Crop Strategies for the Coming Year

February: Oats if you have a 6–10 Week Gap

March: Sowing Options and Incorporating Cover Crops

Perennial and Native Cover Crops

I attended a workshop at the VABF-SFOP Summit on cover crops led by Cerruti R2 Hooks, Veronica Yurchak, from the Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, and Hanna Kahl of UC Davis. The UMD Eastern Shore IPM Center has lots of useful programs and publications. They focus on the most important pest problems and make science-based information available to everyone who contends with pests. This workshop discussed how cover crops influence weeds, plant diseases and insects. Cover crops can smother weeds, augment weed seed predators (lifeforms that eat weed seeds), create a weed-suppressive soil microbe community, release allelochemicals that are toxic to weed seeds, release nitrogen into the crop germination zone, boosting crop growth, cool the soil and compete with weeds for resources.

Cover crops can decrease crop diseases by increasing the diversity of soil organisms, making soil more disease-suppressive; releasing compounds unfavorable to disease organisms; trigger plant immune responses; increase the number of beneficial organisms and forma physical barrier that reduces splash-back from the oil. A nice example is that sunn hemp interplanted in squash rows can cause aphids carrying virus particles in their mouth parts to drop them in the sunn hemp where they do no harm.

Sunn hemp at Nourishing Acres Farm.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cover crops can repel some insects and nematodes, as well as providing habitat, nutrients and protection from predators for the beneficial insects. This can help augment the population of beneficial insects. Cover crops can also act as trap crops for problem insects by being more attractive to them than the crop plants. Cover crops can also cause microclimate change within the crop, for example by acting as a windbreak.

The speaker gave examples with red clover, a short-lived perennial, sown in the previous fall between cucumber rows that were planted in spring. The population of striped cucumber beetles was lower, while populations of beneficials such as big-eyed bugs, minute pirate bugs and ladybugs were increased.

In November 2023, at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference, I went to an engaging workshop called On-Farm Cover Crops Research in the Carolinas by Justin Duncan from NCAT/ATTRA, Jason Lindsay from the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, and Steve McAllan. See his YouTube  Cover Crops for Hot & Humid Regions. At the workshop, Justin Duncan explained Push-Pull Trap Cropping, invented in Kenya, combining a companion plant that repels a pest with a trap crop nearby that attracts it, making pest control easier.

Pigeon Pea as cover crop. Photo https://conservationist.wordpress.com/2008/11/03/pigeon-pea-as-cover-crop/

He advocated for pigeon peas (Cajanus Cajan) as a cover crop for warm droughty climates, that will also keep the soil cooler. When mean temperatures rise 1 Celsius degree, soils in warm areas burn up 10% of their OM, and cool areas lose 3%. Loss of water leads to loss of OM, leading to more water loss. Hot humid areas need twice as much OM as cooler ones to maintain fertility. No-till can cut the loss of OM by half compared to conventional tillage. Other cover crops Justin Duncan recommended include Perennial Peanut, good in orchards, Chamaecrista rotundifolia (round-leaved cassia) and Scarlet Runner beans. Cover crops are a way of growing Organic Matter in place.

Patrick Johnson, RVA Permaculture. Photo https://rvapermaculture.com/about-us/

Patrick Johnson, a Virginia permaculturist, also gave a presentation on native cover crops. See his Proposal and Project Overview:  https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/fs22-345/

And read the Feb 2024 SARE report Using a Native Legume as a Cover Crop for Soil and Vegetable Production Benefits in Small Scale Vegetable Production.

No-Till Cover Crops

I have not covered these yet, and don’t have much personal experience, apart from our one-year-in-ten growing of paste tomatoes in a mow-killed rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas dying mulch. I’ll make a separate post for next week about combining cover crops and no-till methods.

Cover Crop Training Videos from SARE

See SARE for a series of ten training videos.

Weeds Next

For my next annual series of blogposts, starting at the beginning of May, I will cover Weeds of the Month.

Cover Crops for March: Sowing Options and Incorporating Cover Crops

In March, where we undersowed clovers in the broccoli patch in August, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

In December I wrote about Cover Crop Planning for Next Year, including 5 steps of cover crop planning for all opportunities. I have a slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops, which I find to my surprise that I haven’t posted here since my 2014 version.

Here it is now

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In January I shared some resources to give the Big Picture of Cover Crops, including a compilation of slides for SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers.

In February, I described limiting winter annual weeds by sowing oats in spaces without a cover crop and no planned food crop for 6-10 weeks. Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop.

This month I will include some options for cover crops you might sow in March (in central Virginia and similar climates), and then talk about incorporating cover crops, which surely you will be doing this month!

Cover crops to sow in March, and other options

Purple stemmed mizuna. Mizuna and other frilly mustards are fast-growing crops, attractive to the eye and the palate.
Photo Pam Dawling

Depending on the stage of the year where you are, you could revisit any of those posts.

  • In early March the oats plan still works for us.
  • In early spring, the air and the soil are cold, and sowing a fast-growing vegetable crop will not be successful with a gap of less than eight weeks. Crops take too long to grow at this time of year.
  • If you have more than eight weeks you could try those fast-growing vegetables: kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, land cress. Or try Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
  • In late March or April in climates like ours, we can sow winter wheat or winter rye – they will not head up, but will “wimp out” when it gets hot. That is, they will stop growing, so you won’t get a lot of biomass, but you will have some live roots in the soil, holding it together and taking care of the soil microfauna, and discouraging weeds form germinating. One year when our spring-planted potatoes got flooded, we transplanted potato plants to the drier end of the patch and sowed winter rye in the lower end, once the floods had subsided. This kept the soil covered, scavenged the compost we had spread for the potatoes, and was easy to deal with in July when we harvested the potatoes. It was also much more hopeful; to look at an area of green cover crop than an area of green weeds!
  • Once we get to March 31 here, it is too late in the year for us to sow oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth) and too soon to rely on frost-tender cover crops. See the section in February’s post on the Stale Seedbed and Tarping Techniques.

    Tarping beds to kill weeds.
    Photo Cornell Small Farms Unit
  • By mid-April, it is an option to sow a mix of oats and buckwheat. The oats will protect the buckwheat somewhat from the cold. I’ll come back to that idea next month.

Incorporating cover crops, or not

See Barbara Pleasant: How to Take Cover Crops Down. Gardeners working with small tools can start by mowing their live cover crops, grazing poultry on them, or scything them and hauling them aside to use later for mulch. On a very small scale, you can pull your cover crop plants, although I think it is valuable to leave the roots in the soil. On a larger scale, you can graze larger animals, or cut the cover crop down. If the cover crop was winter-killed, the stems will easily disintegrate, so you can skip the cutting down part of these instructions.

If you plan to incorporate the cover crop, choose a mowing method that cuts the plants into small pieces, making them easier and faster to incorporate. On a small scale, this could be a weed whip or a lawn mower; on a larger scale a bush hog. If you plan to use the cover crop for mulch, cut it in a way that leaves the stems as whole as possible. On a small scale this means a sickle or scythe, on a bigger scale, the kind of machinery you might use to cut hay.

Cover crop of rye, vetch and crimson clover in March.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
Rows of Roma paste tomatoes, some on bioplastic, some no-till. Credit Bridget Aleshire

After getting the cover crop down, you could tarp for a minimum of three weeks (allow for more), or you could work the residue into the soil, with a chopping hoe or by digging it in, or using a walk-behind two-wheel tractor such as BCS with a rototiller or a power harrow, or a four-wheel tractor and discs. Cornell has posted a webinar Pairing Tarping with Cover Crops, by Brian Marr.

If you incorporate the cover crop into the soil green, you will also need to wait two or three weeks (or more in early spring) to plant or sow, to give the cover crop time to break down in the soil before it can be available for your crop.

Winter rye produces allelopathic substances that can temporarily inhibit the germination and growth of small seeds. Wait three weeks after turning under before sowing. Transplants don’t suffer the same problem. Oats, wheat, and other cereals also have this tendency, but to a much smaller degree, usually small enough to ignore. Sorghum-Sudan grass hybrid incorporated fresh in the soil hinders the growth of tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli, but that’s a summer cover crop you won’t need to think about for several months.

I still haven’t got to my Conference notes on cover crop workshops, 2023-2024, but this is enough for one post!

Cover crops for August: Oats and Barley

From the USDA Barley Plant Guide

Note: I edited this post in September when I found I was mistaken in believing barley was less cold-hardy than oats.

Focus Cover Crops for August: Oats, barley and other winter-killed cover crops

In August we are looking ahead, thinking about how our cover crops will be impacted by future cold weather. In July I wrote about hot weather grass cover crops, including Sorghum-Sudan hybrid (Sudex), and the millets, which are not frost-hardy.

German/Foxtail and Japanese millets are day-length sensitive. Growth is considerably less if they are sown after the summer solstice, so they are likely to be of limited use as cover crops once we reach August.

Browntop Millet could be useful in August in the mid-Atlantic. Proso/Broomcorn Millet I’m not so sure about. Pearl/ Cattail Millet is not day-length sensitive. To winter-kill and avoid seed formation, sow 60-85 days before your expected first frost.

See Working with the time you have left in the post Cover Crops in Summer. See No-Till summer cover crops in that same post (Soy, southern peas, foxtail millet). Also there, see Five Easy Summer Cover Crops that Die with the Frost (buckwheat, sorghum-sudan grass, soybeans, southern peas and sunn hemp.)

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Buckwheat can be sown up to 28 days before the first frost.  See my article about buckwheat. Soybeans can be sown up to 45 days before frost. A mix of sunn hemp, soybeans or southern peas and other frost-tender cover crops can be grown during August (60-80 days before frost) before planting garlic in mid-fall. This method will work more easily if you mow the cover crop around your frost date, so that it is easier to make furrows in the soil. Forage radish, lab-lab beans or bell beans sown now will die back and leave almost bare soil. This is a boon for the very earliest spring transplants or sowings.

Or, instead of sowing a cover crop now, you could sow a fast-growing vegetable crop. Kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, or land cress. Try Eat-All Greens, an idea form Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Winter-killed, not frost-killed, cover crops

In August, we can sow winter cover crops to be winter-killed for easy soil cultivation before early spring vegetables. Oats and barley are in this category. Oats will be killed by three nights of 20°F (-7°C) or a single night of  6°F (-14°C). Sow oats 5-8 weeks before your average first frost to get good size plants before they get winter-killed. We sow in late August and early September in Zone 7a. See Cover Cropping Your Garden by Chris Blanchard in 2002:

“Inexpensive and easy to grow, oats are a standard early fall cover crop in the northern and middle sections of North America.  A quick-growing, non-spreading grass, oats will reliably die in Hardiness Zone 6 and colder, and often in zone 7.”

It used to be nine years out of ten, here in Louisa County, VA, but our climate is shifting to be too warm in winter to reliably kill oats. This past winter (2022/2023) oats did not die. They were cold-damaged, and set back, but definitely not dead.

We can no longer rely on our winter cover crop oats getting winter-killed. March photo by Pam Dawling

Fall-sown Barley (Hordeum vulgare), grows even faster than oats, although not as fast as winter rye, and it won’t die as early in the winter as oats. Barley dies at 17°F (-8°C). It usually will die in Zone 7 and colder regions. The dead barley residue protects the soil through the winter, and dries into what Barbara Pleasant calls “a plant-through mulch” in spring in cold zones.

See Planning Winter Cover Crops. If the area has been fully harvested of food crops by 60-80 days before frost, sow a frost-killed cover crop or even a fast-growing food crop.  In central Virginia, it’s a mistake to sow rye as early as August, as it can set seed.

Winter-hardy cover crops to sow in August

Not all winter cover crops can be sown as early as August in the mid-Atlantic. Don’t sow winter rye, or it may head up before winter and drop seeds. Only sow oats or barley if you are sure you can get them turned under or killed by cold winter weather before they seed. They will not mow-kill. Be careful buying feed-grade seeds (rather than seed-grade), as they can contain weed seeds including GMO canola.

Clovers can be sown in August (provided you can supply enough overhead irrigation). September is a better time to sow clovers here, if you are sowing them in bare ground. They will make some growth in our climate before winter, and then a lot more once spring arrives.

Secondary Cover Crops in August: Undersowing for more cover crops

  • Choose vigorous food crops, but cover crops that are only moderately vigorous.
  • Timing is critical: Sow the cover crop late enough to minimize competition with the food crop, but early enough so it gets enough light to grow enough to endure foot traffic when the food crop is harvested. Often the best time is at the last cultivation.
  • The leaf canopy of the food crop should not yet be closed. With vining food crops, sow the cover crop before the vines run.
  • Ensure a good seedbed and a high seeding rate.
  • Irrigate sufficiently. The food crop will have good roots by then, but the cover crop seed will be just below the surface and will need some help to germinate.

 Green fallow (Full year cover crops)

Fall broccoli undersown with a mixed clover winter cover crop.
Photo Nina Gentle.
  • Our main use of clovers is to undersow fall brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage, with a mix of Crimson clover, white clover and medium red clover in August, to form a green fallow crop (all-year cover crop) for the following year, replenishing the soil and reducing annual weeds.
  • 2 weeks after transplanting the brassicas (August), we hoe and till between the rows, or wheelhoe.
  • We repeat at 4 weeks after transplanting, and broadcast a mix of clovers (late August-early September): 1 oz (30 g) Crimson clover, 1 oz (30 g) Ladino white clover and 2 oz (60 g) Medium red clover per 100 sq ft (9 m2)
  • In March, we bush hog the old brassica stumps and let the clovers flourish, mowing once a month to prevent the crimson clover and the annual weeds from seeding.

See my Mother Earth News post: Late summer and fall intercropping of cover crops in vegetable crops, aka undersowing.

If you have difficulty getting even coverage when broadcasting clovers or other cover crop seeds, try seeding half the crop walking in one direction, and then seed perpendicularly across your original path

In mid-August, we undersow our last sweet corn planting with oats and soybeans, as the winter cover crop, which winter-kills, leaving a plot that is easily worked up next spring. Our 6th sweet corn is sown 7/16. 4 weeks after seeding, we cultivate and sow oats and soy. In mid-March we follow with our spring potatoes. Both oats and soybeans have some tolerance for shade and for foot traffic (harvesting corn!).

Late season sweet corn undersown with oats and soy
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Sweet corn can be undersown with clover rather than soy or oats in some climates. We tried clover but found it harder to germinate in hot weather, and harder to keep the tiny seed damp. Buckwheat can be undersown in corn as a short term summer cover, but according to Sue Ellen Johnson, (co-editor of Crop Rotation On Organic Farms: a planning manual, it grows rather straggly in the shade of the corn. Soy has the advantages of tolerating shade as well as foot traffic.

We tried an idea from NY State, or undersowing winter squash with buckwheat and tilling it under just before the vines run (that was June), but here in the south, the vines ran too fast. We ended up having to wade in among the vines to pull up the buckwheat by hand!

You can drill cover crop seeds using a push seeder. See VABF Using Manually-Operated Seeders for Precision Cover Crop Plantings on the Small Farm. Don’t worry if the seed ends up deeper than ideal. It will still germinate. On a small scale, you can sow by hand, either broadcasting and raking in, or in close rows using a hoe, as if sowing

Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

Using all the space in the winter hoophouse

Mid-October photo of September-sown tatsoi and August-sown Tokyo bekana. Fast-growing crops make good use of small windows of time throughout the year.
Photo Pam Dawling

Quick crops to fill hoophouse space Oct 1-Nov 29

This fall we had unused space in a bed where we planted Oct 1 radishes and Tokyo bekana (transplanted), Oct 2 brassica salad mix and Chinese cabbage and Oct 3 pak choy. On Oct 4 we had planted only 44ft, half the bed.

On Oct 10 we made a tiny 1.5ft sowing of brassica gap-filler plants. Oct 20 and 23 we did a bit more planting: scallions, radishes and more filler greens and lettuces (12.5ft), leaving 30ft still empty after Oct 23.

The next plantings were more fillers on Nov 9 (5ft), tatsoi on Nov 15 (7ft), radishes on Nov 29 (2ft), total 14ft more, leaving 16ft still empty. Then came lettuce mix on Dec 7 (12ft), leaving 4ft for brassica salad mix #2 on 12/18. Weeks of bare soil – ugh!

Then we start clearing the first round of crops (clearing radish #2 for Dec 8 brassica salad mix #1.5, 2ft) and Dec 18, clearing 4ft of radish #2.5 south side only,  for more brassica salad mix #2, Dec 23 (clearing brassica salad mix #1 for radish #5, 4ft).

If we have a similar crop arrangement next winter, or small empty patches in various beds, what can we plant in space that is still empty after Oct 10, and especially the spaces that don’t get planted until mid-November onwards? We could try different crops, for the various crops that follow.

Qualities of possible crops:

  • Ready to eat 19-83 days from sowing or transplanting. Most spaces 30-60 days.
  • Cold weather crops, not warm weather crops
  • Something we’ll want to eat then, that we don’t already have lots of.
  • Or something that could be processed for later (we generally have enough greens in winter)
  • Maybe not spinach, as it’s a challenge with pests in the fall.
  • (Preferably not brassicas as we grow so many and stretch the crop rotation.)

Ready to eat 21-60 days from sowing

In order of earliness:

Pea shoots make a delightful salad ingredient.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tips (based on Johnny’s Key Growing Info):

  • Grow when the weather is warm 65°F (18°C). Hmmm?
  • Soak seeds for 8 hours (do not re-use water).
  • Sow seeds thickly and lightly press seeds into soil. Shade?
  • Keep moist.
  • Shoots should be at an edible size (3–6″) within 7–21 days.
  • HARVEST: Using a sharp harvest knife or scissors, cut the shoots just above the soil line. Place in plastic bags or sealed containers and refrigerate. [Could use up leftover pea seed that won’t be any good next spring]
Our outdoor Eat-All greens in October. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Eat-All Greens (35 days from sowing). Invented by Carol Deppe, as a method of growing cooking greens quickly with little work, direct sown and cut at 12″ tall, leaving the tough-stemmed lower 3”, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. She recommends 7 greens in particular: Green Wave mustard, Shunkyo and Sensai radishes, Groninger Blue collard-kale, Burgundy amaranth, Tokyo bekana, and Red Aztec huazontle. We tried this outdoors one fall, and I wrote 3 blog posts about it. The crops that did best for us were fava beans, peas, radish greens, Maruba Santoh and Tokyo bekana, frills, turnip greens, Siberian kales. The ones that didn’t work outdoors were kohlrabi, beets, and chard. (We sowed old seeds we had, didn’t buy the recommended ones)

  • Earlier turnips (45d)
  • Beets and their greens (easier than spinach and a double crop) (50-60d)

Ready to eat 30-60 d from transplanting

(in order of earliness):

 

  • Earlier Senposai – but we have outdoor senposai to harvest in Oct and Nov (40d from emergence after sowing; 20 days from transplant)
  • Komatsuna (45 days from emergence after sowing; 25 days from transplant)
  • Kohlrabi (45-60d from 25-40d from transplants)
  • Earlier Napa cabbage (Blues) (52 days from emergence after sowing; 32 days from transplant).
  • Fedco Red Dragon Chinese cabbage (60 days from emergence after sowing; 40 days from transplant)
  • Small early cabbage like Farao, Golden Acre and EJW are all about 62 days from emergence after sowing; 42 days from transplant
  • Broccoli Tendergreen is 67 days from emergence after sowing; 47 days from transplant

Ready to eat 90 days from planting

Garlic scallions outdoors in late March. Think what might work in a hoophouse! Photo Pam Dawling
  • Garlic scallions. We normally plant these in early November and eat in early March (120 days). But if we plant them earlier, in a warmer place, they’ll be ready sooner. Normally you don’t want to plant garlic until the soil cools to 50F (10C), because it would grow too fast and not survive the winter. But if it’s just the scallions you want, the rules change. . .

Clif Slade, who farms in a slightly warmer climate zone in Surry, Virginia, tells me they plant garlic for scallions outdoors in every month except August, and in the hoophouse until January (from September?). December plantings are ready indoors in March, outdoors in April. He generally reckons 90 days from planting to harvest, in warm conditions. Any garlic is suitable. Hardneck, softneck, small cloves, large cloves, whole small bulbs. Best return is on small garlic, although bulbs with lots of small cloves can be tiresome to pull apart!

When to sow crops to transplant?

And how would this fit into our schedule?

  • We’d need to sow 3-4 weeks before a transplant date of Oct 1, thst’s Sept 1-7.
  • We could sow Sept 15 with our first round of hoophouse transplants. Transplant Oct 7-15 approx
  • Start the hoophouse nursery bed two weeks earlier?
  • Or sow in the lettuce nursery seedbed which is already in use in early September?
Bull’s Blood beet greens are the most beautiful addition for salads or can be cooked.
Photo Pam Dawling

It looks like we might have 30ft total available for fast crops. Here’s what fits:

  1. Oct 1-Oct 20, 12.5ft. 19 days. Pea shoots, small transplanted senposai.
  2. Oct 1-Nov 9, 5ft. 39 days. Eat-All Greens, transplanted senposai, komatsuna, or kohlrabi, or pea shoots. Maybe garlic scallions.
  3. Oct 1-Nov 15, 7 ft. 45 days. Turnips, transplanted Blues, Red Dragon, small cabbages, or as in B.
  4. Oct 1-Nov 29, 2ft. 59 days. Beets and beet greens, or transplanted Tendergreen broccoli, or as in C.
  5. Oct 1-Dec 7, 12 ft. 67 days. Any of the above
  6. Oct 1-Dec 23, 4 ft. 83 days. Any of the above.

Caution about slow growth

Growing slows down in November and December, so maybe we should be cautious the first time and add 10-14 days to the days to maturity??

Radishes

Cherry Belle radishes in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Some years ago I figured out a sequence of sowing dates that would give us an even radish supply, without gaps or gluts. For various reasons, we drifted away from those dates, and I’d like to get back to them again. Sept 6 is the earliest we can sow in the hoophouse. Jan 25 is the latest date that will give us a worthwhile harvest, starting Jan 27. Skipping that last one would be OK.

#1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6
Suggested Sept 6 Sept 30 Oct 27 Nov 23 Dec 20 Jan 25
Sowing interval 24 days 27 days 27 days 27 days 36 days
Harvest start Oct 1 Nov 4 Dec 8 Jan 11 Feb 14 Mar 20
Harvest interval 34 days 34 days 34 days 34 days 34 days

Preparing to order seeds

Preparing to order seeds: 6 steps + 3 extra tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Earth News Fair

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

I have a couple of slideshows on SlideShare.net,

See Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production 2019 Pam Dawling

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

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

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

 First, a basic 6 steps of garden planning

  1. See How to Decide Which Crops to Grow.

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

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in a Winstrip tray
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

Seeds stored in glass jars
Photo courtesy of Monticello

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • How Much Garlic to Plant

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Choosing varieties.

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

 

  1. Formatting and placing seed orders

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

Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:

  1. Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

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

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

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

  1. VEGETABLE CROPS THAT OFFER FAST RETURNS

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

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

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

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

Fast Growing Vegetables

Lettuce bed in May.
Photo Wren Vile

Maybe part of your response to Covid-19 is to grow more of your own food, and you are wondering what can bring fastest results. Or maybe you just want to leap into spring and have early harvests. Either way, here is information on some vegetable crops that offer fast returns; ways to get crops to grow faster; ways to get more crops from a small space and some sources for more information.

Vegetable Crops That Offer Fast Returns

In my blog post If Spring is Too Wet in March 2019, I included a paragraph on fast crops.

  • Ready in 30–35 days from sowing are baby kale, mustard greens, collards, radishes, spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) arugula, and winter purslane. Beet greens from thinnings can be cooked and eaten like spinach.
  • Many Asian greens are ready in 40 days or less: Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts. There’s a huge range of attractive varieties, they’re better able to germinate in hot weather than lettuce, and faster growing than lettuce. Most reach baby salad size in 21 days, full size in 40 days. Transplant 4-5 weeks after spring sowing, or direct sow. Nutritious as well as tasty. Flavors vary from mild to peppery; colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green and purple. A diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods! Grow when you normally grow kale. Be aware that Asian greens sown in spring will bolt as soon as the weather heats up, so be ready to harvest a lot at once (if you planted a lot, that is!) You can make Kim Chee.
  • Tatsoi and our August sown catch crop of Tokyo bekana.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size. We have also grown this at other times of year, when faced with an empty space we hadn’t planned for.
  • Mizuna and other frilly mustards are very easy to grow, and tolerate cold wet soil to 25°F (-4°C). In addition, they are fairly heat tolerant (well, warm tolerant). Use for baby salads after only 21 days or thin to 8″–12″ (20–30 cm) apart, to grow to maturity in 40 days. Mild flavored ferny leaves add loft in salad mixes and regrow vigorously after cutting.
  • Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
  • Ready in 35–45 days are baby carrots (thinnings or the whole row), turnip greens (more thinnings!) endive, corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil. Some of the faster smaller turnip roots can also be ready in 45 days or less.
  • Ready in 60 days are beets, dwarf snap peas, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
  • Also ready in 50-60 days once we are past frosts: zucchini, yellow squash, bush beans, small cucumbers can grow fast.
  • Garlic scallions can be grown over-winter, but will grow quickly in spring. Plant scrappy little garlic cloves you don’t want to cook with in close furrows and wait till the leaves are 7” (18 cm) tall before digging up the plant and preparing like onion scallions (spring onions). Can be eaten raw, but more often cooked. You can also plant whole bulbs without separating the cloves. This is a good use for extra bulbs that are already sprouting in storage.
Our garlic scallions in February. we usually space the rows much closer than this. We’ll start harvesting when they reach 7″ in height.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • See other blog posts in my Cooking Greens for the Month series, and Asian Greens for the Month, as well as Lettuce of the Month
  • Try Eat-All Greens, an idea form Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Spinach is good for salad or cooking uses. Be aware that the fastest biggest spinach may not last long once it warms up! We have found Acadia and Reflect have good bolt-resistance from outdoor spring sowings.

Fast Varieties of Lettuce and Greens

Bronxe Arrow lettuce.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • Grow the right lettuce variety for the conditions. Ones that do well in early spring are often useless here after the end of March, or even mid-February. I like to sow 4 varieties each time (for the attractive harvests, and to reduce the risks if one variety bolts or suffers disease): at least one red and one romaine. We have 5 lettuce seasons, with different varieties:
    • Early Spring (Jan – Mar), 6 sowings
    • Spring (April – May 15), 5 sowings
    • Summer (May 15 – Aug 15), 17 sowings (lots of seed!)
    • Fall (Aug 15 – Sept 7), 9 sowings
    • Winter Sept 8 – 27, 9 sowings
  • Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall. A direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop, the plants regrow and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. Weed and thin to 1″ (2.5 cm). When 3″–4″ (7.5–10 cm) tall, cut 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut with using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds
  • Leaf lettuce can be harvested by the leaf much sooner than waiting for a whole head of lettuce.
  • Small-leaf lettuces (aka Eazyleaf, One-Cut, Multi-Cut, Multileaf): Johnny’s Salanovas, Osborne’s and High Mowing’s Eazyleaf; Tango, Oscarde, and Panisse (older varieties) too. Full-size plants can be harvested as a head, or harvested with a single cut, providing a collection of bite-sized leaves. Or just one side (or the outer leaves) of the plant can be cut and the plant will regrow for future harvests. Growing multileaf heads takes 55 days, compared to 30 days for baby lettuce.
Buckley red oakleaf single-cut multi-leaf lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds
  • Other greens can be sown in close rows for harvesting as salad crops at a height of 3”-4” (7-10 cm). These are called mustard mixes or brassica salad mixes.
  • Many cooking greens can be used as salad crops while plants are small, as you thin the rows of direct-sown crops.

Ways to Get Crops to Grow Faster

  • Sow when the conditions are right. Soil temperature is important. I have a table of soil temperatures in Year-Round Hoophouse on page 208. Vegetable Seed Germination: Optimum soil temperatures for germination and days to emergence, where known.
  • Grow transplants. By starting your plants in a place with close-to-ideal temperatures, rather than direct-seeding when it’s still a bit too chilly outside, you’ll get bigger plants sooner. You’ll also buy time to prepare the soil where you are going to plant out.
  • Find warm sheltered micro-climates, in front of a south-facing wall for example.
  • Make your own warm sheltered micro-climates with rowcover or low tunnels.
  • Take advantage of plastic mulch to warm the soil, for crops that like warmth. Regular black plastic mulch will need to be removed at the end of the growing season, but biodegradable mulch does not. However, if you are taking over part of your yard near your house, I should tell you that you will see shreds of the bioplastic next year. See Setting out biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Rolling biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Photo Wren Vile
  • Consider landscape fabric with planting holes burned in, as a reusable alternative to throw-away or biodegradable mulch.
  • Use mixes for salads: Our general salad mix harvesting approach is to mix colors, textures and crop families. I like to balance lettuce of different kinds with chenopods (spinach, baby chard, Bull’s Blood beet leaves) and brassicas (brassica salad mix, baby tatsoi, thinnings of direct-sown brassicas, chopped young leaves of Tokyo bekana, Maruba Santoh or other Asian greens, mizuna, other ferny mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills). See Making salad mix
  • Microgreens: See Andrew Mefferd The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook.
  • When the weather warms up, consider using shadecloth for heat-sensitive plants, particularly lettuce, but any of the cool weather greens you still have by then.
  • In warm weather, greens and lettuces inside a tipi of pole beans will benefit from the shade.

Ways to Get More Crops from a Small Space

  • With transplants, you can fit more crops into each bed throughout the season, because each crop is occupying the bed for less time than if direct-sown.
  • Transplanting can help you grow more successions of summer crops, as each one needs less time in the garden or field.
  • Grow a vertical crop on a trellis and something short in the space below it. You can even use the same trellis twice, growing tomatoes after peas, for instance.
Spinach and peas in a relay planting scheme.
Photo Twin Oaks Community
  • Relay Planting is a method of growing short crops alongside taller ones. We have often sown peas down the center of a bed of overwintered spinach. As the peas grow tall, we trellis them, and continue harvesting the spinach. When the spinach bolts, we pull it up. This overlap of bed use lets us get more crops from a bed in less time than if we sowed the crops one after another. We have also sowed peanuts down the middle of a bed of lettuce on the same date we transplant the lettuce. We make sure to use vertical romaine lettuces rather than sprawly bibbs or leaf lettuces. We have transplanted okra down the middle of a bed of early cabbage. This does involve breaking off outer leaves of the cabbage if they are about to smother the okra.
  • Sow some slower-maturing crops the same time as you sow the fast ones, so you have food later as well as sooner! Carrots, turnips, cabbages, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi,
  • Sow some multiple-harvest crops to save work later. Greens that are harvested by the leaf, rather than the head, offer good value.

Sources for More Information

  • In High-Yield Vegetable Gardening, Colin McCrate and Brad Halm point out that when planning what to grow, it’s important to consider how long the crop will be in the ground, especially if you have limited space.
  • Cindy Conner in Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth, leads you through the process of identifying suitable crops for food self-reliance, and provides a worksheet to help you determine Bed Crop Months. For each bed, determine how many months that food crop occupies that bed and so assess the productivity value of one crop compared with another. Short season crops grow to harvest size in 30-60 days, allowing series of crops to be grown in the space, and feeding people quickly. If all your nutrients are to come from your garden, you will need to pay attention to growing enough calories. Otherwise you’ll lack the energy to get to the end of the season!
  • Curtis Stone, in The Urban Farmer, distinguishes between Quick Crops (maturing in 60 days or less) and Steady Crops (slower maturing, perhaps harvested continuously over a period of time). He has designed a Crop Value Rating system based on 5 characteristics. To use this assessment, you look at each characteristic and decide if the particular crop gets a point for that characteristic or not. Then look for the crops with the highest number of points. Spinach gets all 5 points; cherry tomatoes only 3. The smaller your farm, the higher the crops need to score to get chosen. His 5 are:
  1. Shorter days to maturity (fast crops = chance to plant more; give a point for 60 days or less)
  2. High yield per linear foot (best value from the space; a point for1/2 pound/linear foot or more)
  3. Higher price per pound (other factors being equal, higher price = more income; a point for $4 or more per pound)
  4. Long harvest period (= more sales; point for a 4 month minimum)
  5. Popularity (high demand, low market saturation)
  • Steve Solomon in Gardening When it Counts provides tables of vegetable crops by the level of care they require. His Easy List: kale, collards, endives, chicories, spinach, cabbage, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, all cucurbits, beets, chard, sweet corn, all legumes, okra, tomatoes (followed by the more difficult eggplant, peppers).
  • See my blog post How to Decide Which Crops to Grow
  • See my article Intercropping: Minimize Your Effort While Maximizing Yields, in the Heirloom Gardener of Spring 2018.
  • Jennifer Poindexter on the Morning Chores Site has a nice simple web post on 16 Fast Growing Vegetables That Will Give You a Harvest Quickly
  • Steve Albert on the Harvest to Table website has a good post on Quick-Growing Vegetable Crops. It includes recommended fast-growing varieties of 29 crops.

Cooking Greens in October

 

Vates kale in the fall.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in October

Beet greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale,  komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, pak choy, senposai, spinach, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana turnip greens and Yukina savoy can be available here all month (and perhaps longer, depending on the temperature). OP Yukina Savoy seems more cold-hardy  and bolt-resistant than the hybrid Koji.

The new outdoor greens this month are tatsoi, kale, spinach, collards, and mizuna (if we have that outdoors).

Eat-All Greens harvests can start, if you sowed some last month. When we sowed some on September 16, we got two harvests in October and several in November.

From the hoophouse we start to harvest spinach, tatsoi, and leaves of Tokyo bekana.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in October

This month we finish sowing spinach and kale for overwintering outdoors (10/30 is our last chance). No more outdoor sowings until spring!

“Filler Greens”

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

On October 10, we sow Brassica fillers #1. These are short rows of senposai, Tokyo bekana, Yukina Savoy, Maruba Santoh,  to use to fill gaps later during the winter as soon as they occur. We simply dig them up, replant where needed and water well. Alternatively you could keep some plug flats of these plants handy. Bare-root transplanting is much easier than many fear.

During December we use the “Filler” greens plants to replace casualties and harvested heads of Tokyo bekana, Maruba Santoh, Chinese cabbage, Pak choy, Yukina Savoy and tatsoi daily. We stop filling gaps in these early harvest crops on December 25, as they will bolt in the hoophouse conditions in January at the latest.

We continue to fill gaps elsewhere with senposai until January 25. Asian greens don’t make good growth before bolting if transplanted after January 25. From January 25 to February 20 we fill all gaps everywhere with spinach transplants

Hoophouse Bed preparation and Planting

In the hoophouse we have a lot of bed preparation (all the beds except the Early Bed which we plant in September), as well as transplanting and sowing.

On October 14, we sow turnips #1: Red Round (1 row on North), Hakurei (2 rows South). Oasis, White Egg.

On October 20, we sow Filler Greens #2.

By October 23, we clear and prepare two more beds and sow spinach #2; tatsoi #2, turnips #2, chard #2 and perhaps Frills (Frilly Mustards) #1.5.

Brassica (Mustard) Salad Mix

Interesting mustard mixes are sold for salad mixes. We often mix our own Brassica Salad Mix from leftover random brassica seeds. For a single cut, almost all brassicas are suitable – just avoid turnips and radishes with prickly leaves! We sow between October 2 and November 14 for harvests during the winter, and from December 4 to February 12 for March and early April harvests.

We could, but so far we haven’t, sow Eat-All Greens in hoophouse in October.

Catch crops

Useful if a crop fails, or you have an empty space. Don’t delay, as rates of growth slow down as the temperatures and daylight decrease. Don’t expect much from sowings during the Persephone Days (less than 10 hours daylight).

Tokyo bekana is a quick-growing Asian green, for cooking or salads.
Photo Twin oaks Community

This year we grew an early catch crop of Tokyo bekana when we realized we had space that wouldn’t be needed till mid-October (for turnips). We direct sowed it August 28, weeded and thinned to 1” (2.5 cm) on September 5; weeded and thinned to 3” (7.5 cm) on September 16, using the small plants for salad. We need to clear this crop by the middle of October to sow the turnips, and the Tokyo bekana has got to a fine size.

  • Ready in 30–35 days in fall, longer in winter: brassica salad mixes, spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories), winter purslane., kale, arugula, radishes (the fast small ones and the larger winter ones), many Asian greens: Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, frilly mustards, Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy.
  • Ready in 35–45 days in fall: corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil.
  • Ready in 60 days in fall: beets, collards, kohlrabi, turnips

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in October

September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

In our hoophouse in early October, we transplant Tokyo Bekana, Chinese cabbage, Pak choy, Yukina savoy #1,  using plants which we sowed outside under insect netting.

By October 13, we transplant chard #1, Frills #1, and Red and White Russian kales, from our outdoor nursery seedbed.

By October 21, we clear and prepare another bed and transplant 1/2 bed kale, plus Yukina Savoy, and frilly mustards. (This is our favorite crop selection to suppress nematodes),

By October 23, we clear and prepare two more beds and transplant senposai and Yukina Savoy #2 from the outdoor nursery bed.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in October

October is our month to weed and thin the fall crops in the outdoor raised beds, especially spinach and kale. We thin kale to 12” (30 cm); perhaps more space would be better, although Vates is a dwarf variety.

We put rowcover over any beds of pak choy, Chinese cabbage or Tokyo bekana we have that year. Later we weed (again!) and cover the spinach for faster growth, but leave the kale uncovered after a bad experience of Vates kale with rowcover fibers mixed in. The cooks didn’t love us!

Galinsoga dies with the frost.
Photo Wren Vile

We prefer to wait to cover spinach after frosts kill the galinsoga. As well as raised beds, we plant spinach in our cold frames, making good use of the space until the frames are needed in spring for hardening off transplants.

We roll, label and store drip tape from the fall broccoli and cabbage

Special Cooking Greens Topic for October: Get Soil Tests; Be Ready for Cold Nights.

October is a good month to do soil tests, when the soil is not too wet, and the soil temperatures are still warm (the soil life is active).

Weather Forecasting

We use Wunderground, but subtract 5F° 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.

See Weatherspark.com for the typical ranges of weather in your area:

Savoy cabbage with frost.
Photo Lori Katz

Predicting Frost

Frost is more likely at Twin Oaks if:

  • The date is after 10/14 or before 4/30 (our average first and last frost dates).
  • The Wunderground forecast low for Louisa Northside is 37°F (3°C) or less.
  • The daytime high temperature was less than 70°F (21°C).
  • The temperature at sunset is less than 50°F (10°C).
  • The sky is clear.
  • The soil is dry and cool.
  • The moon is full or new (maybe to do with tides and gravity?).
  • 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.
  • The dew point forecast is low, close to freezing. Frost is unlikely if the dew point is 43°F or more.

Watch for cold night temperatures and decide which crops to harvest, which to cover, which to abandon:

In a double-layer hoophouse (8F/5C warmer than outside) plants can survive 14F/8C colder than outside, without extra rowcover; with thick rowcover (1.25 ozTypar/Xavan) plants can survive at least 21F/12C colder than outside.

The hoophouse winter crops are an important part of feeding ourselves year-round

Each winter I update my Winter-kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables.

Here are some early winter numbers for killing temperatures outdoors (without rowcover unless otherwise stated). Your results may vary!  Let me know!        

35°F (2°C): Basil.

32°F (0°C): Beans, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, okra, peppers, tomatoes.

27°F (–3°C): Many cabbage, Sugarloaf chicory.

25°F (–4°C): Some cabbage, chervil, chicory roots for chicons and hearts, Chinese Napa cabbage, dill, endive, some fava beans, annual fennel, some Asian greens (Maruba Santoh, mizuna, most pak choy, Tokyo Bekana), some onion scallions (many varieties are hardier), radicchio.

22°F (–6°C): Some arugula (some varieties are hardier), Bright Lights chard, large leaves of lettuce (protected hearts and small plants will survive colder temperatures), rhubarb stems.

20°F (–7°C): Some beets, broccoli heads (some may be OK to 15°F/-9°C), Brussels sprouts, some cabbages (the insides may still be good even if the outer leaves are damaged), celeriac, celtuce (stem lettuce), some head lettuce, some mustards/Asian greens, flat leaf parsley (curly parsley is hardier), radishes, most turnips.

15°F (–9.5°C): Some beets, beet greens, some broccoli, some cabbage, rowcovered celery, red chard (green chard is hardy to 12°F (-11°C)), cilantro, endive, some fava beans, Russian kales, kohlrabi, some lettuce, especially medium-sized plants with 4-10 leaves, curly parsley, rutabagas if not covered, broad leaf sorrel, turnip leaves, most covered turnips, winter cress.

Frosted daikon radish.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Cooking Greens in September

Fall-grown senposai.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in September

Chard and senposai are available here all month (and longer).

Some of the unusual warm weather cooking greens, such as Malabar Spinach, sweet potato vine tips, okra leaves, molokhia (Egyptian spinach, related to okra), manihot (aibika) are still edible in early September. See the July and August posts for more about those.

Yukina savoy, komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, pak choy, Tokyo Bekana and Chinese cabbage, can be available throughout September, if they were sown in late June or early July.

At last it is the season here for delicious new cooking greens! Broccoli (from 9/10), cauliflower (from 9/15), beet greens (from 9/20), cabbage (from 9/25), turnip greens (from 9/25), and collards from late September.

We may still have spring cabbage in the cooler, if we had a good harvest.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in September

September is a busy month for sowing greens outdoors. We want the crops to be established before cold weather, so they can make growth throughout the winter whenever it’s warm enough (anything above 40F (4.4C) is warm enough for kale, spinach and lettuce to grow a bit.).

Young tatsoi plants in our early hoophouse bed September 25.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also prepare and plant our first hoophouse bed. That post is  an excerpt from The Year-Round Hoophouse © Pam Dawling and New Society Publishers.

Here’s our day-by-day schedule for both outdoors and our hoophouse:
  • September 6: Direct sow in the hoophouse: spinach #1, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beets
  • September 7: Last date for first round of kale sowings outdoors.
  • By September 15: Sow outdoors if not done yet: kohlrabi, kale and collards; Hoop and net.
  • Early-mid September: Sow spinach #1 outdoors (pre-sprouted). We have trialed various spinach varieties for our hoophouse and for outdoors, and our current favorites are Reflect (outdoors) and Acadia (both outdoors and in the hoophouse).
  • September 15: our first round of nursery sowings for the hoophouse: pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo bekana, chard, (as well as lettuce and frilly mustards for salad mixes). Two or three times in September we sow crops in an outdoor bed to be bare-root transplanted at about 3 weeks old into newly prepared hoophouse beds. This gives the warm weather hoophouse crops (including cover crops) longer to grow, and also gives the seeds cooler conditions to germinate in. Because the pest pressure outdoors is fierce at that time of year, we hoop and net these very important plants. Our rough formula for all transplanted fall brassicas is to sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12’–15’ (3.6–4.6 m) of crop row, aiming for three seeds per inch (about 1 cm apart).
  • September 15 is our last date for resowing kale outdoors, if we are to get any winter harvests from it.
  • Mid-September: Sow spinach in the coldframes. In spring we will use the coldframes to harden off seedlings, but over the winter they make a nice sheltered space to grow more spinach. We will cover the coldframes in the middle of winter. An advantage of using the coldframes for spinach is that the area around the frames is all mulched, and accessible regardless of the weather.
  • By mid-September: Sow turnips outdoors, hoop and net them.
  • September 20-30: Sow spinach #2 outdoors for spring harvest. The goal here is to provide a succession of spinach harvests. This later sowing will size up in early spring and give good harvests before the newly transplanted spring spinach, and be better quality and more abundant than the beds sown in early September.
  • September 24: nursery sowings #2 for the hoophouse: we first -resow any failed #1 sowings; and also sow Red Russian kale, White Russian kale, senposai, Yukina Savoy, Frilly Mustards, and more lettuce. We hoop and net.
  • Late September: Sow Eat-All Greens See the Special Topic for September below.
  • September 30: As needed we resow any of the hoophouse transplants that we are short of.

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in September

An outdoor bed of young Vates kale Photo Kathryn Simmons

In early September, we transplant collards and kale if we didn’t finish in August.

We only grow Vates kale, a very cold-hardy dwarf Scotch curled type outdoors. When the kale is about 3-4 weeks old, we use plants from any of the beds to fill out any other (if we have enough spare plants). We resow if the survival rate is really poor. We eat any extra plants.

In late September, we finish the kale gap-filling. From then on, what we see is what we’ll get.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in September

Weed and thin kale to 12”

To improve spinach seed germination we have put spinach seeds in the freezer in mid-August or earlier (at least two weeks). We reclaim it from the freezer and let the waterproof container warn up to ambient temperatures before opening it. Otherwise condensation will land on the seeds and ruin them for future sowings.

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

To presprout spinach, measure the required amount of seed, put it in a jar and cover with water overnight. Fit a mesh screen lid (a piece of window screen held on a Mason jar by the metal band works well, although you can buy longer-lasting metal or plastic mesh lids too. In the morning, strain off the water, turn the jar on its side, shake out the seeds to lie along the side of the jar, and lay the jar in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to shuffle the seeds and even out the moisture. You are not growing bean sprouts, and you do not need to rinse and drain the spinach seeds. After 6 or 7 days, the seeds will have sprouted enough to plant by hand. Perhaps spread the seeds to dry for an hour on a tray or a cloth. If the seeds stick together as you start to plant, mix in a little dry, inert, absorbent material like uncooked corn grits, bran or oatmeal (but not sticky bread flour).

Beet seeds can also be presprouted, but a bit more care is needed, as it is easy to drown beet seeds. Soak them in water for only an hour or two, and do not use much more water than needed. I realize that’s a tall order the first time you do this, as you won’t know how much is too much! Err on the side of caution! Don’t let the sprouts grow very long, as they are brittle. A short red sprout is all you need.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for September: Eat-All Greens

I introduced the topic of Virginian Eat-All Greens in my blog in November 2015.

Young rows of September-sown Eat-All Greens in early October.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening explained the concept and the practice of growing Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives. I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, and we sowed some on September 16 that year. We hadn’t planned ahead, and didn’t have the perfect range of seeds (see The Tao of Vegetable Gardening for that). We experimented with seeds we had on hand or could get quickly, and we sowed in rows rather than broadcast, because we knew we had a lot of weed seeds in the soil.

Carol Deppe has an article on How to Easily Grow High-Yielding Greens in Mother Earth News Feb/March 2016, which you can read about here

A section of Eat-All Greens in October.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We harvested in October and for the third time on 11/3, and several more times. By December 22, I was noting “Our Eat-All Greens are still alive, if not exactly thriving. The peas have been harvested to death; the kohlrabi, beets and chards are never going to amount to anything; some of the more tender Asian mustard greens are showing some frost damage. On 12/10 we made one last crew foray to harvest – not greens, but roots!” We harvested two and half buckets of radishes and 5 gallons of turnips before the end of the year. I’m not sure how many harvests of cooking greens we’d had, but it felt plentiful..

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

On January 12 I noted: “We had a low temperature of 6F on January 5th. Not much [of the Eat-All Greens patch] is left alive. Always enthusiastic to keep updating my list of cold-hardy winter vegetable crops, I took my notebook and walked the rows a few days later.”

I wrote up our Eat-All Greens for Growing for Market magazine and you can read it in the January 2016 issue. We thoroughly enjoyed the experiment, and the sight of all those rows of abundant greens in the late fall and early winter.

Frosty Mizuna in our Eat-All Greens in December.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

SSAWG Conference, Mother Earth News and Eat-All Greens, Growing for Market

I’m home from a very successful Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference in Lexington Kentucky. It was the biggest so far, with 1400-1500 participants. My workshop Intensive Vegetable Production on a Small Scale ran out even of standing room, so I was asked to repeat it in the afternoon. I did that and the new room was half full. I gave out over 230 handouts. The impossibly broad topic was a challenge for a 75 minute workshop, but I did my best. Last week I blogged the info on Bio-intensive Integrated Pest Management that I had to drop from the slideshow.

I love the SSAWG conference. I learned so many useful tips that will improve my farming this year and in the future. Such as another way to tell a ripe watermelon: stroke it and feel the texture of the skin. If it’s slick the melon isn’t ready. When it becomes a little rough, it is. Such as, yes a 60cfm inflation blower really should be adequate for a 30′ x 96′ hoophouse, so we almost certainly have holes in the plastic. Such as ways to deal with tomato diseases in the Southeast (thanks Joe Kemble of Auburn University).

If you are now wishing you’d been there, go to SlideShare.net and search for SSAWG. There are so many valuable presentations from conferences over the years. Also the audio of this year’s presentations (and last) are available from Rhino Technologies. Wait a few days for them to get home and load everything on their website.


Eat-All Greens on October 19 Photo Bridget Aleshire
Eat-All Greens on October 19
Photo Bridget Aleshire

And while the soil outside is waterlogged and you can’t do much gardening or farming, what better than more veggie-reading? Mother Earth News Feb/March issue has an article by Carol Deppe,  on How to Easily Grow High-Yielding Greens. Carol is the inventor/discoverer of Eat-All Greens, which I have been writing about on this blog. Her 20 years of trialing this method of growing cooking greens quickly with very little work has led her to now recommend seven greens as particularly suitable. Green Wave mustard, Shunkyo and Sensai radishes (I was interested to read that Carol also harvested the radish roots as we did with ours in December), Groninger Blue collard-kale (must get that this year), Burgundy amaranth, Tokyo bekana (check!), and Red Aztec huazontle. No mention this time of peas. Peas provided our earliest harvests this fall. Keeping them tender was a challenge though. The article includes information on where to buy the varieties she recommends. Carol also has her own seed company Fertile Valley Seeds, selling varieties and strains that she has developed.


Potato harvest in November Photo by Lori Katz
Potato harvest in November with our Checchi and Magli harvester
Photo by Lori Katz

In the same issue of Mother Earth News is some of what I have written about dealing safely with green potatoes.


GFM_February2016_cover_300pxLastly for this week, the February Growing for Market is out. This is the first issue from the new editor, Andrew Mefferd. He tackles the thorny topic of hydroponics and whether it can ever be considered Organic. (Many organic and biological growers believe it is important to Keep the Soil in Organic)  As well as the Organic status of hydroponics, he describes the various types of hydroponic production for those that want to grow food that way, and for the rest of us to understand what we are talking about.

There is an article by Nick Burton about his hydroponic system and developing a trust-based sales system in a gym for people on a “paleo diet”, who eat lots of vegetables. Then a salad mix kit. He had moved from running a plant nursery to selling produce to selling convenience for people short of time and enthusiasm for shopping and preparing food. I admit to being skeptical about the paleo diet. Didn’t those paleo people spend all day scavenging for food?

Gretel Adams writes about running a bouquet business efficiently. (I’d be no good, I would dither for too long!)

My own article this issue is very down-to-earth: growing oats as a cover crop. They are easy-care and in climates in zone 7 or colder, they reliably die in the winter, making for easy early spring cultivation. We like to undersow oats and soy in our last sweet corn patch. This saves us from having to disk up the patch to establish a winter cover crop (it’s already there!), and means we can follow the late sweet corn with an early spring crop the next year. In our case it is the March potatoes.

Late season sweet corn undersown with oats and soy Photo Kathryn Simmons
Late season sweet corn undersown with oats and soy
Photo Kathryn Simmons

 

Eat-All Greens part 3, more garden planning

Eat-all greens: frosty Red Giant Mustard in December. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Eat-all greens: frosty Red Giant Mustard in December.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I wrote about our Eat-All Greens in November and December. Here’s the last installment for this season. We had a low temperature of 6F on January 5th. Not much is left alive. Always enthusiastic to keep updating my list of cold-hardy winter vegetable crops, I took my notebook and walked the rows a few days later. Here’s a (short) list of the survivors:

Morris Heading Collards - our favorite Photo credit Kathryn Simmons
Morris Heading Collards – our favorite
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Best was (were?) the Morris Heading collards. We grow these overwinter in our garden too, and we are enjoying eating those. This photo shows young plants before they reached full size.

Ortolani Market Grower arugula from Seeds from Italy
Ortolani Market Grower arugula from Seeds from Italy

Also still showing some life were Purple Top White Globe turnips, Ortolani Market Grower arugula and some (not all) of the Hanover kale (which is after all, a Siberian spring kale, not recommended for over-winter growing).

It will be interesting to see if any of these survive until mid-February, when we will need to disk the plot (El Nino willing) to plant some new grape vines along one side. This plot is also my back-up area in case the plot where we want to plant our spring cabbage and broccoli is too wet when the time comes. The rotation puts these in the wettest part of our gardens.

I have written up our Eat-All Greens for Growing for Market magazine and you can read it in the January issue.

In this issue you can also read an article by the new editor Andrew Mefferd about growing microgreens. I’ve never grown these, so I valued getting professional tips from someone who has. How not to grow them (sowing too thickly, using expensive potting soil when you don’t need to, over-watering, under-ventilating.

GfM January 2016
GfM January 2016

He also includes tips on which seeds are best for microgreens, and how to tidily harvest. If you want to add microgreens to your market crops, a sub to Growing for Market will repay you pretty quickly with just this one article. And if you are growing them at home, it will save you lots of frustration.

The long-time editor, Lynn Byczynski, who is retiring, has an article about growing turmeric, which has similar growing requirements to ginger (but a bit easier). Eric and Joanna Reuter have written about raising shiitakes for market. Gretel Adams has written about selling cut flowers to supermarkets, which has served her as a good way to increase sales volume. All good inspirational reading while the weather doesn’t encourage working outdoors!

Eat-All Greens rows with frost in December. Photo Bridget Aleshire
Eat-All Greens rows with frost in December.
Photo Bridget Aleshire