Spring underway at last!

This past week has seen real forward progress in the garden. The last of the rows of snap peas got planted. As I explained in a previous post, we plant peas in the middles of beds of spinach. I wrote more about this and other examples of interplanting in my post for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog.

We also transplanted 4 beds of spinach (360 row feet each). Tilling was delayed by wet soil, so I was happy we had enough transplants to get us off to a fast start. Hot weather arrives early here, and causes the spinach to bolt, so having transplants helps us get a longer harvest season. Many of the plants were bare-root transplants which had been growing in the hoophouse since 1/25.

Speedling flats. Photo from EPS Manufacturing
Speedling flats.
Photo from EPS Manufacturing

We ended up with spare spinach which we had sown in Speedling flats in the greenhouse. Speedlings are available from many grower supplies places, or look for them (organically) used. They are expanded styrofoam, which makes them very lightweight, and in fact they float, a feature which we make use of when we sow sweet corn starts to fill gaps in rows of our first (chancy) corn planting. We have a big tank where we float 8 Speedlings of corn. They need no watering and don’t get stunted. Carefree! They are a tad fragile in novice hands, and as we like to make our plastics last as long as possible, we make sure to instruct people to pick them up when transplanting, not drag them by putting a thumb in a cell and pulling. Butter knives make great transplanting tools for the 200 cell or bigger Speedlings. Jab the knife in the soil, wiggle it from side to side, making a wedge-shaped hole. Then slide the knife down the sloping side of a cell, hold the plant gently in the other hand, pulling slightly while lifting the knife in the first hand with a scooping motion. The plug then rests on the horizontal blade of the knife. Slide the plant into the hole, firm the soil, and repeat 719 times for one bed of spinach! Or get help.

Transpalnting spinach from Speedling flats. Photo Denny Ray McElyea
Transplanting from Speedling flats.
Photo Denny Ray McElyea
A carrot bed showing the indicator beets. Credit Kathryn Simmons
A carrot bed showing the indicator beets.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We sowed 3 beds of carrots 3/23, along with some “indicator beets”, which should germinate a day before the carrots, and so tell us when to flame-weed. Typically carrots take 9-12 days at this time of year, but I think the soil is still colder than normal for the time of year. They’re not up yet (day 8). It’s time we moved the soil thermometer from the flats on the heat mat in the greenhouse out to the carrot beds. [Why not buy another soil thermometer, Pam?]

We also got two beds of beets sown, with more to do today. And we’re ready to transplant our first three sowings of lettuce. That will give us some much needed space in the coldframe. (Not to mention some much needed lettuce in a few weeks!) The delayed outdoor plantings have caused a lot of back-up congestion in the greenhouse and cold frame.

Our over-wintered Vates kale isn’t looking too good, after the extreme cold weather we had this winter. And unfortunately our spring-sown kale didn’t come up, so we’re on course for a spring kale shortage. We can plant more collards, as we have lots of those plants, and maybe some more senposai.


The number of people reading my blog grew from a lower point in September, through October, November and December to a steady 4200 per month in January, February and March. That’s 140 a day. I’m very happy with that. My blog now has 88 followers. If you want to leave a comment, look for the button at the end of the comments section, or the speech bubble at the top right of the blog.

My review of Craig LeHoullier’s wonderful book Epic Tomatoes continues to be a very popular post, and I’m embarking next on a review of another great book: The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe

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Planting fall crops, receiving rain

Young turnip and radish plants. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Young turnip and radish plants.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re in cold-hardiness zone 7, and our average first frost date of October 14. This makes the first half of August our last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. In 2012 I wrote Last Chance Sowings. Depending on your climate zone, your dates might need to be earlier or later than ours. Fall vegetable growing provides fresh harvests, storage crops and possibly some crops to overwinter.

There are three categories of vegetable crops to consider planting at this time of year:

  • Warm weather crops that die with frost.
  • Cool weather crops that grow well in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in the summer.
  • Cold-hardy crops to grow over winter and get off to a fast start in early spring.

Planning and timing are crucial – if germination fails, you may not get a second chance with that vegetable. The twin challenges of fall crops are sowing in hot weather, followed by keeping the crop happy in cold weather. 

Warm weather crops

Don’t stop too soon! But don’t plant too late to have a reasonable chance of success. For crops to be harvested before killing frosts arrive, the formula to find the last sowing date for frost-tender crops is:

Number of days from outdoor planting to harvest (read the seed packet or catalog)

+ Number of days from seed to transplant if growing your own starts

+ Average number of days of harvest period

+ 14 days “Fall Factor” to allow for the slowing rate of growth as the weather cools

+ 14 days from your average first fall frost date (in case of an early frost)

______

= Days to count back from your average first fall frost date

 

For example, yellow squash takes 50 days from sowing to harvest, and our last planting is 8/5, a whole month later than we could risk without rowcover to throw over on chilly nights. Don’t worry that rowcover prevents pollination – you don’t need to get every flower pollinated, just keep the developing fruits growing. In many parts of the country, a frost or two will be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is worth the effort. (Unless you’ve reached the exhaustion point we call “Praying for a Killing Frost.”) It’s easy to get harvests for an extra month from mature plants you already have.

Cool weather spring and fall crops

Beets, carrots, chard, spinach, lettuce, scallions, peas, potatoes, Asian greens and other leafy brassicas, turnips, rutabagas and radishes all fall in this group. Fall gives you a second chance to enjoy these crops. The flavor of crops produced during warm sunny days and cool nights can be a delightful combination of sweetness and crunchy succulence.

We sowed 60% of our fall carrots last week, along with some “indicator beets,” and I ran overhead irrigation Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, on a third of the length each time. The indicator beets started to germinate on Sunday, and so yesterday (Monday) we flame-weeded the beds. Last night we got a little rain. Today there are hazy rows of green – germinated carrots! Maybe you’re wondering why we only sowed 60% of what we wanted. Well, we ran out of seed! Embarrassing and annoying, but oh well. More is on order, and it’s not too late to sow them, although they have less time to grow big. Every day counts in the fall!

Flame Weeding. Credit Brittany Lewis
Flame Weeding.
Credit Brittany Lewis

The formula for calculating last sowing dates for frost-tender crops can be modified for hardier vegetables. For example, Early White Vienna Kohlrabi takes 58 days from sowing to harvest (line 1). You can direct sow, so line 2 = 0. You can harvest it all at once and store it in your cooler, so line 3 is 1 day. Assuming you don’t want to use rowcover for this, line 4 = 14. Line 5 = 14 also. That all adds up to 87 days. Kohlrabi is hardy to maybe 15°F. The temperature is not likely to drop to 15°F before the beginning of November here, so counting back 31 days in October, plus 30 in September, plus 31 in August – that’s 92 days already, more than enough. We could sow kohlrabi in early August and get a crop at the end of October.

We have made ourselves a chart for fall harvest crops so that we don’t have to calculate each time. It helps us ensure we don’t sow too late to get a decent harvest.

Sowing dates for crops with various days to maturity

Days to   Harvest Harvest Harvest
Harvest   mid-Sept- late Sept- from  
    mid Oct mid-Oct mid-Oct
30d   27-Jul 16-Aug 31-Aug
40d   17-Jul 6-Aug 21-Aug
50d   7-Jul 27-Jul 11-Aug
60d   27-Jun 17-Jul 1-Aug
70d   17-Jun 7-Jul 22-Jul
80d   7-Jun 27-Jun 12-Jul
90d   28-May 17-Jun 2-Jul
100d   18-May 7-Jun 22-Jun
110d   8-May 28-May 12-Jun
120d   28-Apr 18-May 2-Jun
130d   18-Apr 8-May 23-May

We’ve sown two beds of beets, one of kale, some winter radish and fall radish. We’re behind on tilling and prepping beds, or we would have more. We’re experiencing the domino effect of getting late with one task, and then struggling to catch up as more and more tasks get behind-hand. We were late with our potato harvest. And therefore with our broccoli and cabbage transplanting (which uses that plot). Because we are transplanting older plants, we’re removing a couple of the older leaves from each one as we plant, to reduce transpiration losses. We’re late with tilling and bed prep, and therefore with planting. But we do still have hope. One of our mantras (learned from another farm) is “Prioritize planting during the planting season.” Here the planting season extends from early February to November outdoors.

We don’t sow spinach till September, so we’re not behind on that yet! Because spinach germinates so poorly in warm soil, we wait for temperatures to drop. This “summer” has been extremely cool, but we’re in no hurry to start spinach earlier than usual, because of all the other tasks. This year it would probably work. I saw fall dead nettle germinating on 8/4. That’s a phenology sign that the soil is cool enough for spinach.

I’ve been recording phenology data here since 2003. 8/4 is the earliest date I have for dead nettle, by a margin of 11 days! It has been as late as 9/1 (2004).

Cold-hardy crops to grow over winter

I covered this topic in detail in Growing for Market in September 2010, and in my slideshow Cold-hardy winter vegetables. The gist is “Before taking the plunge, know your climate, know your resources, know your market, know your crops, and when you don’t know, experiment on a small scale.” Useful information includes the winter-kill temperature of your desired crop. Choose hardy varieties, and be clear about whether you intend to harvest outdoors all winter (kale, spinach, leeks, parsnips, collards for us), or whether you want to have small crops going into winter so you can rest during the winter and be first out the gate in early spring, with crops waiting for you.