Book Review: Ira Wallace on Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast

Book Review:

The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening

in the Southeast

by Ira Wallace.

January 2014, 200 pages, $19.95. ISBN-13: 978-1-60469-371-3

 wallace_i books-gardeninginthesoutheast

This book will be valuable primarily to new vegetable gardeners and those moving to the Southeast. Of course, experienced gardeners always want to learn from each other, so I encourage anyone growing food in our region, or its neighbors, to take a look. The writing and format are clear and accessible, the index is excellent, so you can quickly find the topic you want. The scale is backyard, not farm. That said, this book could be useful for new farm interns to learn crop basics, timing, and how things are done without fancy equipment. It has the advantage of clearly setting out the basic information without being overwhelming.

The Southeast has been “traditionally underserved” in terms of vegetable gardening books, so having this compilation of tips for our climate, the names of reliable regional varieties, and the encouragement to start in any month and harvest in every month, is valuable beyond price. There are great gardening writers elsewhere in this big country, but nothing beats learning from someone who really knows the territory. Ira learned gardening in her grandmother’s yard in Florida, and has grown food in Virginia for many years. It is hard to translate northern books which talk of ground frozen solid for months in winter, or curing onions out in the September sun. Beginners will have a much happier time starting out with a book written for the actual conditions they will encounter. Gardeners moving from other climate zones will get useful information about working with “the quirks of our climate”; fall gardening, winter gardening, hot weather crops like southern peas and okra. For instance, did you know why gardeners in hot climates don’t sow in hills? They dry out too much (the gardeners as well as the hills!).

This book is intended mostly for those in the lands where the American Holly grows. This is zones 6-9, with bits of 5 and 10: the Southeastern Coastal Plains, Piedmont, Appalachians, Interior Plateau and Ozarks. Winters are temperate, summers are hot and humid, and there is a wide range of seasonal crops. We need to start spring crops early, to get a harvest before temperatures heat up; we need to add organic matter frequently, as it burns up fast in hot humid conditions; we need to know about shading.

The Gardening 101 section includes many helpful tips on soil tests, garden planning and rotations and cover crops. There are lists of crops by season and by ease of growing in our climate. As the introduction says, “Happily, gardening is a year-round activity in our region”, so there is a month-by-month section listing tasks and possibilities.

The Month-by-month section includes a To Do page for each month with panels on Plan, Prepare and Maintain, Sow and Plant, and Fresh Harvest. There is also a Skill Set panel each month covering topics such as making compost, setting up drip irrigation, building shade structures. Each month has a theme: Sowing Seed Indoors for February, Beating the Heat in July. The tone is encouraging and helpful for beginners and climate migrants alike.

My one quibble is that the drawings don’t always seem to exactly fit the text, and I wish there could have been some photos. Luckily, Ira is from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and their website www.southernexposure.com has plenty of photos of crops in action and includes a sun symbol for varieties especially suited to the Southeast.

There is a nice description of working against the shortening days and cooling temperatures of fall to get crops established in the “living refrigerator” outdoors – filling it up to draw from later. Plan for crops to mature in late November, before growth slows right down. There are a lot of critters out there, though, so bring in what you can for storage. Also, plan to have some crops reach half-size, be protected over winter, then rapidly grow in early spring for first harvests of the new growing season.

Part 3 of the book is an A to Z of crops, starting with two Planting and Harvesting Charts, one for the Upper South and one for the Lower South. These cover 38 crops or groups of closely-related crops. Then each crop has around one page of details, divided into paragraphs on Growing, Harvesting, Varieties and Seed Saving.

The Resources section  includes seed and plant suppliers, community organizations, weather and climate resources, companies selling tools and supplies, soil testing services and more good books (blush, including mine). There is a Glossary, to demystify any terms you don’t know – soon you will!

If you live in the Southeast and are new to growing food here, you’ll learn a lot from this book and its clearly arrayed information. If you live around the Southeast, you’ll probably also learn some tips (think of Pennsylvania as the “Upper Southeast”!). If you’re a farmer with new interns about to arrive, get this book for your library. If you’re an experienced vegetable grower in our region, take a look too – I bet you’ll find some new ideas.

Last Chance Sowings

This week we’ve been busy tilling and raking beds in preparation for some Last Chance sowings.

In our climate zone, with an average first frost date of October 14, the first half of August is the last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. It’s important to know the last date for planting each crop so that you have a reasonable chance of success. For this part we got help from the Virginia Tech Extension Service: Fall Vegetable Gardening. 

The first group of Last Chance sowings are the warm weather crops, such as green beans, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash.

Here’s the formula (for frost tender crops), for figuring the number of days to count back from the expected first frost date; add the number of days from seeding to harvest, the average length of the harvest period, 14 days to allow for the slowing rate of growth in the fall, and 14 days to allow for an early frost. For example, yellow squash takes maybe 50 days from sowing to harvest, and the plants are good here for 21 days, so the last date for sowing would be 50+21+14+14= 99 days before the first frost. For us that means 99 days before 10/14, so 7/7. But with rowcover to throw over the last planting when it gets cold, the growing doesn’t slow down, and the season is effectively 2 weeks longer, and we can ignore the 14 days for an early frost. So our last planting of squash is 8/5, a whole month later than if we didn’t use rowcover..

But August is way to soon to be thinking about frosty weather, except to ensure we have enough rowcover on hand when the time comes. Here, and in many parts of the country, a frost or two will often be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is the effort. It’s easy to get extra harvests for a month or two from mature plants you already have.

We sow our #6 planting of beans 8/3, 15 days after #5; cukes #5 (slicing), by 8/5 at the latest; and zucchini and summer squash #5 by 8/9.

The second group of Last Chance sowings are cool weather crops that grow here in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in the summer. Beets, carrots, chard, turnips and radishes all fall in this group. It can be hard to get some of these to germinate when the soil is still hot.

On 8/1 we sow beets dry or presoaked for 2-12 hours in a little water – not too much water or for too long, as they need to breather air, or could drown. We sow them 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp the soil, and keep the surface damp with daily watering for the 5 or 6 days they take to emerge. We have tried using shadecloth to help keep the soil moist, but it does cut down the airflow and our climate is humid and fungus-inducing. I like the Formanova/Cylindra/Forono beet. The shape is long (good for slicing), and the flavor is very sweet and the texture tender.

Very early in August, or sometimes in late July, we sow a large planting of fall carrots, enough to store and feed us all winter. Danvers 126 is our workhorse carrot. We use an EarthWay seeder, which is light, easy to use and to empty, and comes at a reasonable price. There are more expensive precision seeders that put the seed out more evenly, and so don’t require the amount of thinning that using the EarthWay does, but we’re happy with our choice. We use pre-emergent flame weeding to remove the first flush of weeds, making it easy to then hoe between the rows.

Carrots and beets are ideal crops for this technique. The goal is to flame the bed the day before the expected emergence of the crop. use a soil thermometer and a table of how many days the crop needs to germinate at various soil temperatures, to figure out which day to flame. For carrots it’s possible to sow a few “indicator beets” at one end of the bed, and as soon as you see the red loops of the beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case!) Beets are always a bit quicker than carrots to germinate. Tables of Days to Germination can be found in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook (Wiley, 2006), by Donald Maynard and George Hochmuth, and Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook. (Rodale, 1988)

We use a handheld flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. this person also acts as a “fire warden”. Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame. Walking along the aisle between the beds, and wafting the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed takes about 10 minutes for a 100′ (30 m) bed. Flame weeding alone can reduce the hand weeding to one hour/100′. Hand weeding can be reduced to 6 minutes/100′ by flaming after using stale beds which have been hoed 3 or 4 times.

Swiss Chard can also be sowed here in August, for a nice fall harvest. We sow ours in April and just keep it going all summer, fall and (if covered) winter too.

At the beginning of August we sow winter storing radishes, China Rose, Red Meat, Shindin Risoh Daikon and Shunkyo Semi-Long. We also sow Easter Egg small radishes. We can have trouble with flea beetles as well as harlequin bugs on our fall brassica sowings, as the pest numbers have built up over the summer. To avoid these troubles, we put rowcover over the beds until the plants are big enough to stand up for themselves against “pest bullying”.

We sow 6 beds of kale, two each every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. Often we’ll get patchy emergence and end up transplanting plants from one bed or one end of a bed to fill out the blank areas.

We sow our turnips 8/15 or up until 9/15 (our absolute latest). Rutabagas need longer than turnips, and we’ve given up growing them because late July weather is just too hot and dry. Brassicas will germinate just fine in hot temperatures – the challenge is keeping the soil moist.