Cooking Greens in April

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in April

Out with the old! In with the new!

A bed of spring Senposai.
Photo by Wren Vile

Outdoors, collards, kale and spinach that have over-wintered will be coming to an end. Most years, the collards and then the kale bolt in mid-late March, and the overwintered spinach in April.

Fast growing crops like mustard greens and senposai from spring transplanting will be ready to harvest as leaves from early April; collards and kale from mid-April. Beet greens might be ready at the end of April, or it might be May before we get those, depending on the weather and our sowing dates.

From the hoophouse, we are getting the last of most of our indoor greens. The Russian kale, the chard and the Frills (frilly mustards) are bolting. We do have spinach we sowed in January, which will continue all this month. The Bulls Blood beet leaves no longer look very appetizing, but we could cook those up early in the month. The milder winter means earlier bolting this year.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in April

Bright Lights chard in our garden in July.
Photo Pam Dawling

Chard is our best summer cooking green. Chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) is the same species as beetroot and, like beets, is a biennial. Hence it will not flower until the second year after planting, and can provide fresh greens all summer and fall, until halted by hard frosts. Even then, the root may survive and regrow the next spring. Leaf beet, also known as perpetual spinach, is a chard, with thinner stems and smaller leaves than most Swiss chard. It is the closest in flavor to spinach for growing in hot weather

Leaf Beet (Perpetual Spinach)
Photo Fedco Seeds

If you prefer spinach in spring, as we do, grow that first, and switch to chard for summer, sowing in plug flats or soil blocks three weeks before your last frost date. (We sow March 24-April 6)

If you want chard in spring, you can start flats earlier or direct seed outdoors two or three weeks before the last frost date.

We also use beet greens for cooking, although our main purpose is to grow beets. Our last date for sowing beets in spring is 4/15.

There are other hot weather greens you could sow in central Virginia and warmer climates.

In the hoophouse, it is definitely too late to plant cooking greens. Anyway, we are filling the tunnel with early tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and peppers.

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in April

Broccoli head after rain
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we transplant our main cabbage and two sowings of broccoli under nets or rowcover within 6 weeks of sowing. Rowcover is our usual choice, because changeable weather and late frosts are more of an issue here in spring than bugs are. It is important to protect young cabbage and broccoli with 5-8 true leaves from cold stress (<40°F/4.5°C for a few days, or longer at 50°F/10°C). At this stage they are particularly sensitive to cold, which can cause early bolting (and very low yields). After a few weeks, when the weather is more settled, we move the rowcover to newer, more tender crops.

Mid-April: We use saved extra transplants to fill gaps in the broccoli and cabbage plot, at the same time planting out alyssum every 6’ (1.8 m) in the center of the beds. These little flowers attract beneficial insects (see more below).

Ruby Red chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Late in April we will transplant leaf beet and chard – it doesn’t take long for the seedlings to grow. Often we cover the prepared bed with hay mulch, then make two rows of “nests” in the 4’ (1.2 m) wide beds. We don’t space the rows evenly across the bed, but bunch them in close to each other in the middle. This saves the paths for us to walk down.

In the hoophouse, in very early April we use young spinach transplants to fill gaps only in the outer thirds of the beds, leaving the bed centers free for the tomatoes, etc. It would be better to have done this in late February and March, but this year we didn’t get to it. We won’t get high yields, planting this late.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in April

Early April: We move rowcover from turnips, senposai, early cabbage, kohlrabi and onions as needed for the broccoli and the maincrop cabbage.

Mid-April: We move rowcover from spring-planted kale, collards, mustard and early lettuce for the tender crops. We finish filling gaps in the broccoli and cabbage plot, at the same time planting out alyssum (sown March 3) one plug every 6’ (1.8 m) in the center of the beds. See the Special Topic for April below, for more on farmscaping, as this method of pest management is called.

Early spring cabbage with alyssum to attract beneficial insects.
Photo Pam Dawling

Late April: We move rowcovers from for the broccoli and the maincrop cabbage. With broccoli, the first weeks after transplanting are vegetative growth, adding leaves until there are about 20, when “cupping” starts — the leaves start to curl up, forming a convex shape rather than growing straight out. The cupping stage is usually10-14 days before harvest starts, depending on temperature. If the weather gets too hot — more than 80°F (27°C) — too soon, the broccoli may grow only leaves, and not head up.

In the greenhouse, we start to have less work, which is fortunate as outdoor work increases.

Special Cooking Greens Topics for April: Farmscaping for Brassicas

Farmscaping is the inclusion of specific flowers to attract beneficial insects. The pollen and nectar offer an alternative food source to beneficial insects when their insect prey is scarce. And if their insect prey is right by the flowers, what could be better?

Alyssum.
Photo Raddysh Acorn

We plant Sweet Alyssum in our spring broccoli patch to attract predators of aphids and caterpillars; Putting 5 percent of the crop area in plants that attract beneficial insects can seriously reduce pest numbers. Sweet alyssum, yarrow, dill, coriander (cilantro), buckwheat, mung beans, other peas and beans, black oil-seed sunflower, calendula and cleome all work well to attract a range of insects (especially ladybugs and lacewings) that eat or parasitize aphids. Pans of water and gravel will help attract aphid midges and lacewings. The gravel provides surfaces for the insects to land on while drinking. Farmscaping can make other insect control unnecessary in a good year. Beneficials will generally move up to 250 feet (75 m) into adjacent crops.

We also plant “insectaries” around the garden, usually at the ends of beds with crops that will be growing for several months. These flowers are planted inside rings sawn from a plastic bucket. The rings alert the crew that something special is there, not just a clump of weeds. Mix flowers to have something blooming all the time.

Insectary circle with sunflower, tithonia, borage, zinnia.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another method for incorporating farmscaping is to plant beneficial-attracting perennial flowers in areas that are too challenging to use for production: edges, slopes, tight corners, hedgerows, and field borders.

Other Pest Management for Brassicas

Using rowcovers keeps many pests off the plants while they are small. We have not had much trouble with aphids, perhaps partly because our overhead sprinklers wash them off and they can’t travel far. Insecticidal soap sprayed three times, once every five days, can usually deal with aphids. Our worst pest is the harlequin bug. For lack of a better organic solution, we handpick them. Ladybugs are reputed to eat harlequin bug eggs.

Sometimes we have had enough cabbage worms to make Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) necessary, but usually paper wasps eat the caterpillars. The action level threshold is an average of 1 cabbage looper, 1.5 imported cabbageworms, 3.3 armyworms or 5 diamondback moth larvae per 10 plants. Below this level you can do watchful waiting rather than spraying with Bt or spinosad. We are lucky enough to have the naturally occurring wasp parasite of cabbage worms, the Braconid wasp Cotesia species, which are found as small cottony white or yellowish oval cocoons in groups on brassica leaves. The Cotesia wasps like umbelliferous flowers, and overwinter on yarrow as well as brassicas. If you find Cotesia cocoons in the fall and your brassicas aren’t diseased, you can leave plants in the field over winter. Or you could collect up leaves with cocoons in late fall and store them at 32°F–34°F (0°C–1°C) until spring. Hopefully no one will clean out your fridge without checking.

Richard McDonald has good information in his Introduction to Organic Brassica Production. He reports that broccoli plants with six to sixteen leaves (just before cupping) can lose up to 50 percent of their leaf area without reducing yield. Moderate defoliation (20–30 percent) causes the plant to exude chemicals that attract parasitic wasps and predatory insects. If you relax and allow this amount of defoliation early on, you can encourage these beneficial insects to move in and begin foraging in the area. Once the plants cup, you want to prevent further defoliation by having the most beneficials and the fewest pests on site. If pest levels are above the action threshold, cupping is the stage to take action, and probably not earlier.

Broccoli side shoots offer harvest after the main head is cut.
Photo Nina Gentle

To float out worms and aphids after harvest (before cooking!), use warm water with a little vinegar and soak for up to fifteen minutes, then rinse.

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.