Root Crops in May

A tidy bed of young carrots in May. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in May

Potatoes: It’s OK to plant any time in May: See my post on planting potatoes

Sweet potatoes: We generally plant sweet potatoes around May 10, 16″ (40 cm) apart, with 4-4.5′ (1.2-1.4 m) between ridges, allowing 5’ (1.5 m) space at the edges of patch. We install drip irrigation on the ridges when using plastic mulch. It is ideal if the soil temperature is 65°F (18°C) for four consecutive days before planting.  Plant 2-3” (5-7 cm) deep, with at least 2 nodes in ground, and at least 2 leaves above ground.  If the slips are long, plant them diagonally or horizontally, rather than going into a deep vertical hole, where the soil will still be cold. See my post on sweet potato planting

Carrots: We direct sow our sixth bed of carrots in mid-May. We sow our first carrots in mid-February, and then sow every 2-3 weeks after that. Our soils are cold in February, but the seed comes to no harm in the ground, and it’s a job we can get done early. May is our last month for sowing carrots that we know will be sweet. If we need to, we also sow once a month in June and July, but the hot weather impairs the flavor. Our big storage carrot sowing in early August will taste good, because the weather cools as they grow.

Here in central Virginia, zone 7, on a sandy clay loam, we grow Danvers 126, a sturdy open pollinated variety suited to high production of bulk carrots. In the past I have grown Chantenay Red Core (65 days), a blocky variety with a blunt tip, 5″ (13 cm) long and 2″ (5 cm) at the shoulder. It resists splitting, and can deal with clay.

Any decent soil will grow some carrots, but the best ones grow in deep, loose, and fertile sandy loams with good moisture-holding capacity. Old books warn against using manure before carrots as it will make them fork. This refers to uncomposted manure, not to compost. Compost will increase yields, and even reduce the culls with some varieties. (Research by Daniel Brainard at Michigan State University.) Compost not only increases the organic matter in the soil, but also suppresses some diseases and nematodes (which can cause forked carrots).

Thin carrots promptly to get good yields.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sow carrots whenever the soil is below 95°F (35°C), so long as you can keep the surface damp. Aim to sow 30 seeds/ft (1/cm), 0.25-0.5″ (0.6-1.2 cm) deep. Some people sow in single rows 8-10” (20-25cm) apart. Others sow in bands 2″ (5 cm) wide, at 8” (20cm) apart, with one length of drip-tape serving two bands in one 16-24″ (40-60 cm) bed. Carrots do well on raised beds, because the soil stays loose and the roots can easily grow deep. Hard rain in the first 3 or 4 days after planting can dry to a crust which could stymie the emergence. To prevent this, if you get heavy rain, irrigate for half an hour each day afterwards until the carrots emerge. Some people use shade cloth to help keep the soil surface moist. There are precision seeders which save you from thinning, but most growers I know use an EarthWay seeder, and then thin. Some people mix inert materials with the seed to help get a spaced stand. Sand at 1 quart (1 liter) to 0.5 teaspoon (2.5 ml) seed per 25’ (8 m) of row, is one recipe, although I worry that sand will destroy the plastic parts of the Earthway seeder before long.  Some people bake old carrot seed to dilute the good new seed.

Carrots do very poorly with competition, so try to start early carrots in a bed that had only light weeds the year before. Later sowings can make use of the Stale Seedbed Technique, where the bed is prepared ahead of time, and one or more flushes of weeds are germinated and flamed or hoed off. We flame weed our carrot beds before the carrots emerge. See the Special Topic below.

Carrots thinned to 1″
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Get to the initial thinning as soon as you can, spacing to about 1” (2.5 cm) apart, weeding at the same time. We usually have someone with good eyesight and hand-eye co-ordination hoe between the rows the day before the hand-weeding. If you are in an area with Carrot Rust Fly (Carrot Root Fly), you will want to remove all thinnings and broken foliage from the field, so you don’t lure the low-flying pest with the wonderful smell of the broken leaves. We do a second thinning, to 3” (8cm) at the stage when the baby carrots can be used for salads. If we get more weeds, we might do another round of weeding before harvesting the full size carrots. If carrots are spaced too widely, they will be more likely to split, and the overall yield will be reduced.

Flats of celeriac seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Celeriac: An eye-catching winter storage root vegetable. Celeriac is sometimes called “turnip-rooted celery”. Its flavor is starchier and sweeter than celery, with hints of parsley, and a nutty taste. Celeriac is slow growing, but easy to care for once established.

If you have a long growing season, you could direct sow celeriac 6-7 months before the first fall frost date, for a late fall harvest. Perhaps put a board over the seed row to keep the soil damp and cool until the seedlings emerge. For most of us, we don’t have that much time. So if you didn’t already start some celeriac plants, May is too late for this year. Plan to order seed next winter.

Transplant celeriac when plants are 2.5-3″/6-7.5 cm tall, once the weather seems settled and warm, after your last frost date. If the weather is cold, just wait. Falling apple blossom is a phenology sign that conditions are suitable. We transplant celeriac around May 7 (our last frost is expected April 28). Use rowcover if a cold spell arrives after you have planted them out, or if you know cold weather is likely to return.

Celeriac gets 12”/30 cm spacing, with 4 rows to a 4’/120 cm bed –  that’s about 10”/25 cm between rows. We found closer spacing doesn’t work in our humid climate, as poor air-flow encourages rot. The Virginia climate is actually on the warm side for this crop, it prefers cooler areas, but we have good success if we pay attention at a few critical times. Celeriac requires long steady growth, so the task of the grower is to prevent checks to growth (such as weeds!). It can tolerate frost quite well, so there is no hurry to harvest in the fall. It can benefit from side-dressing with compost during the growing season, or giving seaweed as a foliar spray. A pH of 5.8-6.7 is ideal.

Root Parsley: A less well-known member of the umbelliferae family, also known as Parsley root, Hamburg parsley, Dutch parsley and turnip-rooted parsley. The flavor is a cross between carrot, celery and parsnip.  Like celeriac, it is slow to germinate and slow to grow. 70-90 days to maturity from direct sown seed.

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

Young beet plants
Photo Wren Vile

Beets: We like the long Cylindra/Formanova/Forono ones which are 6’’ (15 cm) long, very tender and are easily cut into regular slices, for pickles or cooking (55 days to maturity, OP). Among round ones we like Ace (50 days to maturity, F1 hybrid), and Detroit Dark Red (60 days, OP). Detroit Crimson Globe is said to maintain better flavor in hot weather than most others, which can develop off-flavors.

Young bunched beets can be stored for 10 days at 32°F (0°C) and 95% humidity. Mature beets can be stored for 6 months or more at 32°F (0°C) and 95% humidity. Trimmed beets keep well in perforated plastic bags under refrigeration.

Carrots: Our first carrots (sown in mid-February) will be ready to harvest in early May. Harvesting carrots barely needs describing. You need to loosen the soil to the depth of the carrots, pull them out, trim and wash. Some growers remove the tops first, but then it can be harder to remove the roots from the ground. Some people store them without washing, but then cleaning them is harder than if done before the soil dries on them. Carrots store very well in a refrigerator, in a perforated plastic bag. If you have lots to store, it is best to sort them, ensuring no scrawny ones or damaged ones get stored. Don’t store with apples or other fruit, or large amounts of cut flowers, or sprouting crops. The ethylene these crops give off can spoil the taste of carrots, removing the sweetness and leaving them tasting a bit soapy.

Harvested kohlrabi.
Photo McCune Porter

Kohlrabi: An unusual vegetable, sure to attract attention and be a discussion piece. It is tender with a flavor between a cabbage and a turnip. This tasty, crunchy root-like vegetable is easy to grow and doesn’t wilt as soon as you harvest it. It is actually the swollen stem, rather than a genuine root, but it behaves like a root vegetable. It can be eaten raw (sliced or grated) or cooked. The kind most commonly grown is a pale green or purple globe with long-stemmed leaves. When the leaves are cut off leaving stubs it resembles a sputnik. In addition, the leaves are also edible.

Conditions for growing kohlrabi are much the same as for other brassicas. It does best in cool weather. In our zone 7 climate, kohlrabi, like other brassicas, can be grown in spring or fall.

Harvest when the kohlrabi are 2-3” (5-7.5 cm) in diameter or even up to softball size. If left growing for too long the swollen stem becomes woody. Cut them from the ground with a sturdy knife. The base of the globe can be quite fibrous, so cut either the wiry root just below the soil surface, or cut higher, leaving a small disc of the globe behind, attached to the root. Snip or lop off the leaves, perhaps leaving a small top-knot if the kohlrabi will be sold immediately. We harvest in spring from around May 10 to June 30, and in the fall from October 20 to November 15.

Kohlrabi stores well in perforated plastic bags in a walk-in cooler, offering flexibility about when it is used, which is always an advantage.

Radishes: Early May brings an end to our spring radishes. Our last sowing is April 10. After then it is too hot for radishes where we are. In July or early August we sow winter storage radishes, including daikon.

Turnips ready for harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

Turnips:  A reliable root vegetable in the brassica family. They are among the fastest growing crops other than leafy greens. In zone 7, we sow a small crop of turnips outdoors under rowcover March 15, or earlier if spring is mild. Although they grow best in cool weather, turnips have no trouble germinating at high temperatures, as when grown for a winter storage crop.

Turnips are also available in gourmet varieties, to be eaten small, young and tender, 35-50 days after sowing, up to 2” (5 cm) in diameter. The delicious F1 hybrid Hakurei, 38 days, a smooth white flat-round shape, with crisp sweet flesh, and hairless leaves, is the most famous of the gourmet varieties. Although best harvested small, they do retain quality for a short storage period.

Young turnips can be pulled, banded, washed and sold with tops intact. Prompt cooling is important to keep the leaves from wilting. Small spring turnips can be pulled by hand, without digging – ours are ready May 20, and we clear the last of them in early June, refrigerating them till mid-July if we have enough.

For manual harvest, loosen the roots with a digging fork as needed, then pull. Trim tops and tails in the field (or move to the shade if it’s hot). All foliage should be removed for successful long term storage. Cut cleanly between the leaves and the root. Then wash, drain and store. Prompt washing before the soil dries on the roots will make them easier to clean.

Storage in perforated plastic bags under refrigeration works well for us. Turnips will keep for about 4 months at temperatures close to freezing and humidity of 90-95%. Higher humidity will make them rot.

Cut and damaged roots do not store well. If you haven’t enough humans to feed them to, but you have milking animals, you could chop them (to prevent choking) and feed them to your livestock. Even moderate quantities will not flavor the milk.

Other Root Crops Tasks in Central Virginia in May

See my post next week on growing and hilling potatoes, including alternatives to hilling for wet conditions. Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.

Special Root Crop Topic for May in Central Virginia: Flame-weeding

When we sow carrots, we sow about 12″ (30 cm) of beet seeds at one end of the bed – these are “Indicator Beets”. When the beets germinate, we know the carrots will be up the next day and today is the time to flame weed the carrot beds. Flame-weeding is a great way to get rid of millions of fast-growing weeds and leave the field free for the slow-growing carrots. We still have to weed and thin once or twice as the carrots (and weeds) grow, but it is much easier to see the carrots, and they grow better if the first flush of weeds has been flamed off.

Soil thermometer in a beet bed.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

As well as beets, I use a soil thermometer and a chart of days to germination of carrots and beets at various soil temperatures. The table shows that beets are always a bit quicker than carrots in germinating. This information is in Sustainable Market Farming, Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook and Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook.

Days to Germinate 50°F (10°C) 59°F (15°C) 68°F (20°C) 77°F (25°C) 86°F (30°C) 95°F (35°C)
Carrots 17.3 10.1 6.9 6.2 6.0 8.6
Beets 16.7 9.7 6.2 5.0 4.5 4.6

Figure out which day you will probably need to flame. As soon as you see the red loops of the indicator   beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case). In summer we flame carrots on day 4 after sowing, because we have found that carrots can emerge on day 5 in summer temperatures. One snag we hit once was that the carrots were mistakenly sowed an inch deep, instead of near the surface. Of course, this delays emergence, so by the time the carrots made it through that inch of soil, many new weeds had sprung up too.

Once you get over the hesitation about using a fiercely hot propane burner, flame weeding is quick and easy. And boy, it saves so much hand weeding! We use a Red Dragon backpack flame weeder (without the backpack frame).  We use the hand-held 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 safety monitor, looking out for unwanted things (like hay mulch burning). Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame, and work solo, but we prefer to include a second person (and in this picture, a third!).

Flame weeding a carrot bed.
Photo Kati Falger

The operator walks along the aisle between beds, and wafts the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed. It takes about 10 minutes for a 100’ (30 m) bed. Flame weeding can reduce hand-weeding to one hour/100’ (30 m). Flame weeding plus stale beds 3 or 4 times can reduce hand weeding to 6 minutes/100’ (30 m).

What can you do if spring is too wet?

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

As growers, we do not have control over everything that happens. The main thing outside of our control is the weather, and it’s only going to get more chaotic as climate change bites. Heavy rain events can leave soil impossible to work, because the water can’t drain away fast enough. What can we do when it’s too wet?

Laura Lengnick in Resilient Agriculture views climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as exposure, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). As for adaptive capacity, the main feature is our personal capacity to respond and plan. We need to pay greater attention to the climate as a critical factor in our decision-making.

Be Prepared

  • See Weatherspark.com for easy-to-understand graphics showing the average weather in your locality. Figure out which crops are most marginal already in your climate, and decide whether they are worth keeping in your crop portfolio, and whether they are important enough to be worth providing more protection for.
  • Using raised beds can help excess water to drain sooner.
  • Raised beds will drain and be ready to plant sooner after rain.
    Photo Ezra Freeman
  • Increasing the organic matter content of the soil helps it absorb more water in a manageable way, without compacting and going anaerobic. Compost improves the soil structure, organic matter and humus. The effects last longer than cover crops and crop residues, especially in humid conditions where the breakdown of plant material is very rapid.
  • Maximize the volume of living roots (food crops and cover crops) throughout the soil profile (use both deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops).
  • Cover crops. The root channels improve the soil structure — fine roots make up 70% of the root biomass of crimson clover, vetches, and field peas, and when the cover crops are mowed, these roots support microbial growth, form active organic matter, and rapidly release N to the plants. Keeping roots in the soil all the time, or as much of the time as possible, will help prevent erosion.
  • Consider no-till cover crops which become mulch.

    A no-till cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover.
    Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Avoid “bare fallow” at times of year when you could get a lot of rain. That might mean not just hurricane season, but year-round. Low-growing non-invasive cover crops can be planted in pathways.
  • Minimize tillage because tilling accelerates nutrient burn-up and hence the loss of organic matter. Avoid tilling or disking right before a forecast of heavy rain.
  • If water drainage is a big issue where you are, you may need to consider a “grassed waterway” Your NRCS office can help with the design. See their publication Grassed Waterway and Vegetated Filter System, Conservation Practice Job Sheet 412. This is really a very large gradual swale with a grassed surface, which you can mow (think home-grown mulch!).
  • Another option is a “drywell” or French drain, a big hole full of rock. We calculated that for our hoophouse, ours would need to be 11′ × 11′ (3.4 × 3.4 m) and 4′ (1.2 m) deep. It would have been a big area and a lot of rock (and money), and not inconsiderable maintenance to keep it free of sediment and leaves.
  • Field tile drainage
  • Keyline plowing (along contours).
  • Swales (also called “infiltration trenches”) allow water to gradually seep into the soil, while sending sudden large volumes downhill to an area which can absorb more water. A swale 18″ (45 cm) wide by 8″ (20 cm) deep in averagely draining soil can infiltrate approximately 1.6″ (4 cm) rain per hour per 20 ft2 (1.86 m2) of contributing area.

    A caterpillar tunnel and a plastic mulched bed at Potomac vegetable Farms in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • Physically cover the soil: hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels can help keep crops from deluges. Large structures do have the issue of runoff, but you can plan ahead for that and make a drainage system. When we built our hoophouse, we made a ditch around three sides of it, to channel runoff downhill. Some people who have roll-up or drop-down sidewalls install plastic guttering on the “hipwall” lumber that these structures need, and collect the rainwater for irrigation. Bear in mind that the water catchment barrel will be low down and the water will need pumping or dipping and hauling to be useful. Read the NRCS Code 558 Roof Runoff Structure.
  • Before the storm moves in, cover the soil where you plan to plant: temporary caterpillar tunnels (field houses), low tunnels, plastic mulches and tarping (occultation) can keep some of the soil dry, at the expense of causing runoff that makes other areas wetter. This can help get crucial plantings done in a timely way, leaving the wider problem to resolve later.
Fast-growing Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

First Aid if you can’t plant when you want to

  • Consider transplanting instead of direct seeding. We did this one year with our winter squash, when the plot was hopelessly too wet. We were able to transplant the squash fairly young, and did not have a big harvest delay.
  • Consider a different, faster, variety that you can sow later and catch up. Some leaf lettuces only need 46 days (Salad Bowl, Bronze Arrowhead, Tom Thumb), while Romaines can take a lot longer (Crisp Mint, Winter Wonderland 70 days, Webb’s Wonderful 72 days). Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall.
  • Consider a different, faster, crop that you can sow or transplant later. Keep your crop rotation in mind, as well as the next crop you intended to plant in that spot. Here are some fast-growing crops:
    • Ready in 30–35 days are some Brassicas such as kale, arugula, radishes (both the fast small ones and the larger winter ones); many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai (40 days) tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts
    • One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size.
    • Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
    • Ready in 35–45 days are corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil.
    • Ready in 60 days are beets, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
  • The International Cooperators’ Guide Grafting Tomatoes for Production in the Hot-Wet Season recommends using eggplant rootstocks for tomatoes when flooding is expected.

First Aid if you can’t till

  • Could you mow? This will prevent weeds seeding, and prevent the cover crop or previous food crop from getting any bigger. It will be easier to till once that does become possible.
  • If you can’t get a mower across the beds, can you use a weed whip (string trimmer) or a manual weed whacker or a scythe? This will buy you some time.
  • Could you use a broadfork? This will open up the soil, allowing it to dry faster.
  • Could you lay tarps over the whole mess, and wait for the cover crop or weeds to die?
  • Could you use a flame weeder to kill the existing vegetation? Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.
Flaming (pre-emergent)
Photo Brittany Lewis

Dealing with Floods

  • If your soil floods, drain it promptly, or you may end up with drowned plants (insufficient air) and with a high salt level caused by evaporation. Dig shallow trenches to let the flood water flow away.
  • After the flood recedes, you could lose yield from loss of soluble nutrients. The soil may have become anaerobic, reducing available nitrogen. If you have a suitable source of nitrogen, apply some. You may also get a flush of weeds, competing with your slow-to-recover crop.
  • See How to Rehab Your Soil after a Flood on the Hobby Farms website for five steps to repairing the damage: Clean Up, Remove Water, Beware of Contamination, Level the Land, Rebuild the Soil with Cover Crops. See also the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Expert Tip: How to Handle Flooded Fields for information about food safety.
  • Consult your local Extension service before selling any produce that has been in standing water, as the water may have become contaminated. See the US Food and Drug Administration Guidance for Industry: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-Affected Food Crops for Human Consumption
  • There is more about dealing with floods  and disasters in general, in The Year-Round Hoophouse.

Tools for small-scale growers

Rolling drip tape on shuttles for storage and reuse.
Photo Luke Stovall

It’s been raining all day, so I look around for inspiration and useful rainy day work. Repairing things and making useful tools are usually satisfying.And I found a couple of fun and inspiring inventions by others to share.

Drip tape shuttles and winding system

I’ve written before about our drip tape shuttles, which enable us to save and reuse drip tape. Here’s our Perfect Drip Tape Pack-up Check List

  1. Gather spring clamps (4 per cart), rebar axles, carts, small bucket for end caps, black marker, yellow or white grease pencil (in Drip Tape First Aid Kit), a few pieces of rope 2-4 ft long.
  2. Remove end caps and collect in small buckets
  3. Remove any rope/cord tying drip tape to end stakes (if any)
  4. Pull up stakes
  5. Disconnect drip tape at main pipe, by unscrewing the connector from the tape, not by pulling the connectors out of pipe. Don’t disconnect any short drip tape blank ends, leave them in the pipe.
  6. One person coils the mainline pipe in big 4-5 ft diameter loops, with NO kinks. Tie in three places with rope. Make and affix a plastic label if there is not already one attached. Describe what crop it was used for, and what row spacings, number of rows. Store.
  7. Meanwhile, other people free up the drip tape without destroying the crop too much, and write the length on the ends, using the grease pencil.
  8. Set up the cart with the axle and spring clamps, on the uphill side of the patch (helps drain the tape as you roll it)
  9. Then roll it on appropriately labeled shuttles, two lengths at a time, tightly and tidily, each keeping to cos own side of the shuttle (so they can be unwound separately). Tuck last end in, and ensure the end of the drip tape is labeled with the length, and both sides of the shuttle are labeled.
  10. Take all the shuttles to the barn, and hang them in pairs over the beams using rope. Use knots that a normal human will be able to undo easily. Hang shuttles high enough so people won’t bang their heads, but low enough to be reachable by someone standing on a chair.
  11. Return all the tools and supplies.
Unrolling drip tape from shuttles, using a garden cart as support.
Photo Luke Stovall

I was reminded of our drip tape system when I came across this Rowcover roller

Rowcover rolling with crank handle.
Photo Rodale Institute

Taming the floating row cover is a blog post on the Rodale site by John and Aimee Good. They say

The row cover reel is our favorite part of our system, and it is super low-tech. It is comprised of two portable saw horses with pipe straps attached and a PVC crank we made to fit on the end of the row cover pipe. We set up the saw horses at the end of the bed about eight feet apart. We then push the PVC pipe through the pipe straps on each saw horse and hammer our crank onto the end of the pipe with a rubber mallet.

By using long pipes to roll the row cover on, they have handles to hold, and a space to label length, width, condition of the row cover.


While researching a term new to me: “Personalized Harvie Farm Shares

I learned from the Small Farm Central blog that Harvie connects customers directly with  local farms who deliver shares of farm fresh produce customized to meet personal preferences. Like a CSA, but with choices.


Towards the end of that post I got a chuckle when I saw this flame weeder:

Repurposed stroller makes a fine flame weeder.
Photo Sustainable Harvest Farm Kentucky

The blog post is entitled

3 Themes from 2,000 miles of driving visiting farms in TN and KY

and the inventive farmers Ford and Amanda are from Sustainable Harvest Farm in Kentucky.

I’ve written before about the wonders of flame weeding. We bought our Red Dragon backpack flame weeder from Fedco.

We’re going to need the stroller! Single-torch flamer saves lots of weeding time.
Photo Kati Falger

Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

Another tool we love is our all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools.

I wrote about it last September, when we were preparing our hoophouse beds for winter crops.

This tool is great for aerating compacted soil without inverting it. The soil beasties thank us.

Below is a photo of a hoophouse bed after broadforking before the (immediately following) task of raking to break up the big clumps and produce a fine tilth. It’s important not to let the soil dry out into bricks before raking, or life will be hard (and those soil beasties may be dead).

Hoophouse bed broadforked to aerate the soil without inverting.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lastly I’ll mention our blueberry hoop method. Maybe your bushes, like ours, are flowering now, and maybe you are determined to have a better netting system than you had last year. I described our (then new) blueberry hoop system in 2013. The blueberry area is 16′ x 65′ approx. Height of the netting supports needs to be 7′ or more for most of the space. The 20 blueberry bushes are 66″ apart, in two rows.

We chose PVC Electrical conduit to make our hoops. Unlike PVC water pipe,  plastic electrical conduit is UV-inhibited for outdoor use. Lengths have flanged (bell) ends, and can be joined without any connector pieces. It’s lightweight, and no bending tools are needed (unlike for metal conduit or fencing top-rail). It packs flat for out-of-season storage, and is relatively cheap.

We made a “Spider-House” temporary framework: An idea used for temporary “field houses”. It consists of pairs of bows fastened together at the apex, in a way that spreads out into a 4-legged structure. A row of these make up the frame. An advantage is that the spiders are stronger than simple bows, and that the whole thing can be dismantled relatively easily. The shape helps add strength to lightweight bows.

Blueberry netting on hoops.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Harbinger weeds of spring, and early garlic scallions

We’ve failed to restore the bog post that got hacked two weeks ago. Last week I reposted the Diversify Your Vegetables slideshow that had been part of the Lost Post. Today I’ll write more about garlic scallions. Here’s my general theme of today: is 2017 bringing an early spring?
Flowering Purple (or Red) Dead Nettle, with honeybee.
Credit Kathryn Simmons
I wrote last summer about the three early spring flowering weeds of chickweed, henbit and purple dead-nettle. At that time, I was watching for newly germinating fall seedlings of those three to indicate it was cool enough to sow spinach. Now I’m looking at these weeds flowering to see how fast the spring warm-up is progressing. The photo above shows the dead nettle in late spring, with some chickweed and a honey bee. Two weeks ago (2/6) I saw small flowering versions of all three. Is this early?? Yes, earlier than average, by a week or so. But still within the range of normal.:
Chickweed flowers.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/S/W-CP-SMED-FL.006.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.
Chickweed has been seen flowering here as early1/1 (2007) to as late as 3/16 (2015, were we unobservant?) Average 2/13. One week earlier than average for that one.
Henbit flowers, Lamium amplexicaule.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/L/W-LB-LAMP-FL.004.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.
Henbit has been seen flowering here on 1/6 (2007) to as late as 3/29 (2014). The average is 2/22. Two weeks earlier than average for that one.

Dead nettle has flowered here as early as 1/21 (2011) to as late as 3/18 (2003). Its average is more like 3/1. Three weeks earlier than average, but still not the earliest ever.

I think I saw a flowering dandelion too.
We make a Phenology List each year. No crocuses open here yet!

Garlic scallions in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Last week I wrote about garlic scallions, in a bit of a hurry. We usually harvest these starting March 1st, but this year we started at the end of January, as the plants had grown tall enough. Another indicator of spring being warmer than usual, so far.

Here’s more about growing this tasty bonus vegetable

 Reasons to grow garlic scallions:
  • A very tasty and visually attractive crop during the Hungry Gap, the spring period before any new crops are ready for harvest, when our palates are getting tired of leafy greens and stored roots.
  • Supply garlic taste at a time when supplies of bulb garlic may have run out.

How to grow garlic scallions:

  • Set aside the smallest cloves when planting your main garlic crop
  • Find a small space which will be easy to get to in early spring (late winter), and make furrows a couple of inches deep as you would for planting regular garlic cloves.
  • Plant the tiny cloves close together in close-set furrows, dropping them in almost shoulder to shoulder, just as they fall. Close the furrow and mulch over the top with spoiled hay or straw.

Harvesting garlic scallions:

  • We harvest garlic scallions from early March, once they reach about 7-8″ (18-20 cm) tall,
  • They last till May, unless we need to use the space.
  • Loosen the plants with a fork rather than just pulling
  • Trim the roots, rinse, bundle, set in a small bucket with a little water
  • Scallions can be sold in small bunches of 3-6 depending on size

Alternative harvest method:

  • Rather than digging up the plants, cut the greens at 10″ (25 cm) tall, and bunch them, allowing cuts to be made every two or three weeks. Greens wilt quicker than scallions, and you’ll have to wait till later to start harvesting them.

We’re about to sow our first carrot bed, which will be our first outdoor sowing of the year. We are preparing beds to transplant spinach, cabbage, kale and collards. We belatedly noticed that our tiller tines are worn down! Oh, if only we had been on top of this and put new ones during the winter, we’d be having an easier time of turning under the cover crops and weeds this week!

We sow “indicator beets” with our carrots so that we know when to flame-weed them
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Phenology follow-up. Cicadas are coming!

Ezra's salamander
Ezra’s salamander

I wrote about phenology and shared our Twin Oaks phenology chart on 3/28. Since then I’ve read two related blogs I want to tell you about. One is my fellow Twin Oaker Ezra Freeman, whose blog ObserVa A year observing nature in Central Virginia has wonderful photos of plants and animals here at Twin Oaks and wherever he goes. Most recently a hike up Old Rag mountain in the Shenandoahs. The other is Chert Hollow Farm’s Bird list & other natural events. Eric and Joanna Reuter own and operate Chert Hollow Farm, a small, diversified farm featuring certified organic produce near Columbia, MO. They have a great website. Probably a thousand miles from Twin Oaks, so not the same as our backyard. In some ways that makes it all the more interesting. Another natural event I’m keeping tabs on is the emergence of the 17-year cicada. Debbie Roos  of the Growing Small Farms site posted a link to a news article about the coming emergence of Brood II of the 17-year periodical cicadas on her Facebook page and sent out a link to the Cooperative Extension’s Growing Small Farms website.

17 year cicada up close and personal
17 year cicada up close and personal. Credit Cicadamania.com

Cicada Mania is a great source for all cicada-related information.  The blog is amusing and packed with info. Adult cicadas begin to emerge when the soil temperatures reach 64F.  (My soil thermometer is monitoring temperature in a carrot bed I plan to flame-weed.) If you haven’t got a soil thermometer, Cicada Mania has an emergence calculator based on air temperature. http://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/cicada-emergence-formula/ Here is a map of the areas which can expect to see this cicada, for a month or so, starting in May. We’re right in there. Adult female cicadas damage young woody plants by tunneling in thin twigs to lay eggs. I didn’t plant any new fruit bushes this past winter, so don’t really think I have much to worry about. Damage to older bushes and trees is dramatic-looking, but not usually permanently harmful. b_02

Goodbye winter, hello summer!

Rhubarb season is almost here. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Rhubarb season is almost here.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Spring in Virginia is so variable in temperature! But this year is more so than usual. We’ve just had three days with high temperatures of 90F (31C) or more. Not so long ago we had night-time lows of 20F (-6.5C). Late February and all of March was full of snow and rain.

The only thing we managed to plant in the garden for the whole of March was a small amount of shallot bulbs. We’ve been doing an impressive amount of scrambling in the first ten days of April, to make up for lost time. Some crops we had to cut back on, because it got too late to plant. We only have a quarter of the onions we planned, half of the peas, a fifth of the spinach, and no fava beans this year. I realize it would be useful to have “last worthwhile planting dates” for all our spring crops, to help decision-making.

To add insult to injury, a Beast ate half of our early broccoli transplants in the cold-frame one night. Because there were big surface tunnels, I think it was Eastern Moles. They are insectivorous, not vegetarian, but they do use leaves to line their nests, which they make at this time of year. I bought a trap – no luck. I covered the remaining broccoli and lettuce flats as best I could with rat wire “lids” and clear plastic domed food covers – things I had handy from previous depredations. What seems to have worked is to line the coldframes with landscape fabric and set the flats on that, tightly up against the edges, leaving no wiggle room. Wisely, we do a later, third, sowing of broccoli to cover emergencies, so we spotted those out into bigger flats. We’re going to need them this year.

Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting. Credit Kati Folger
Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting.
Credit Kati Falger
Newly emerging potato plant in the spring Credit Kathryn Simmons
Newly emerging potato plant in the spring
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We have at last got our potatoes in the ground, three weeks later than ideal. On the positive side, they had been chitting (green-sprouting) in crates under lights in the basement since the beginning of March, so I could console myself that they were growing anyway. And probably they will come up quicker in the (suddenly!) warmer soil. We cut them for planting once the area was disked for planting and we were pretty sure we could get them in the ground in a few days.

We’ve busily transplanted spinach, kale, lettuce and scallions, and sowed carrots, more scallions and the third bed of beets. We used the Earthway seeder for the beets, and found the radish plate worked better than the beet plate for Cylindra seed, which were smaller than the Detroit Dark Red. We also tried the popcorn plate with some success, when the beet plate jammed.

We flamed one of our first two beds of beets, to kill the weeds that didn’t die properly with our hasty delayed rototilling. We would have flamed both, but the Cylindra popped up overnight earlier than I expected (going by soil temperature), so we’ll have to hoe those really soon, maybe this afternoon.

Spring bed of cabbages planted into rolled hay mulch. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Spring bed of cabbages planted into rolled hay mulch.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Next we’ll be prepping our cabbage and broccoli beds. We make temporary raised beds, roll out round hay bales over them, then transplant into the mulch. We do this by first measuring and making “nests”, using our hands to open up the mulch down to the soil. The brassicas appreciate the mulch to moderate the soil temperature and keep some moisture in the soil.

Our big weeding projects have been the raspberries and the garlic.(Goodbye, henbit!)

 

Mar 2013 Growing for Market
Mar 2013 Growing for Market

Today we might sow our parsnips. I just wrote an article about them in the March issue of  Growing for Market. This issue also contains articles about increasing hoophouse tomato production, adding solar panels, equipment for tracking the weather, food safety and new interesting cut flowers.

Florence bulb fennel. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Florence bulb fennel.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The April issue is also out. For that, I wrote about fennel – bulbs, leaves, seeds and pollen. Other articles include one about Johnny’s Salanova lettuce, others about training cucumbers and tomatoes up strings in the hoophouse, a tractor implement for rolling out round hay bales (which is only fun to do by hand the first ten times, max), more on food safety, and an interview/field trip to Texas Specialty Cut Flowers. 

GFM-April 2013-cover-300px

Twin Oaks Garden Task List for February

Greenhouse interior with early spring seedling flats.Photo Kathryn Simmons
Greenhouse interior with spring seedling flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

PlanningWeek 1:  Revise Crop Planting Quantities chart, Perennials worksheet, Harvest and Food Processing Calendars, Veg Finder, and Phenology Chart. Week 2:  Revise Fall Brassicas Spreadsheet, Onion Plan and Log, Sweet Potato Plan. Revise and post Paracrew Invitation. Week 3: Write Seed Saving Letter. Revise Blueberry Map and Log, Grape Map and Log. Week 4: Revise Crop Planting Specs sheet, revise Garden Planning Calendar, File notes, prune files.

Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce #3, 4 in flats (short-day fast varieties, every 14 days).

Spread compost & till beds for spinach, beets, favas, lettuce, onions, little alliums, turnips, senposai, kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, collards when soil dry enough.  Till beds for carrots 1-3, with or without compost.

#1 Spring Tractor Work  – Compost and disk areas for broccoli and potatoes when dry enough, or till.

Early Feb: in greenhouse sow: cabbage, collards, senposai, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli #1, celery, celeriac

Sow spinach outdoors if Jan sowings fail: 4oz/bed pre-sprouted. Transplant spinach from hoophouse [or flats].

Sow fava beans (seed is in peas bucket). Plant small potato onions if not done in January.

Mid-month: in greenhouse: Sow lettuce #3, and resow hoophouse peppers as needed. Spot cabbage, lettuce#3, hoophouse peppers, kale, collards, and harden off.

February pepper seedlings in the greenhousePhoto Kathryn Simmons
February pepper seedlings in the greenhouse
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Sow carrots #1 outdoors with indicator beets. Flameweed. Finish planting spinach, (direct sow if not enough transplants).

Buy seed potatoes mid-month and set out to greensprout (chit) before planting: 65°F (19°C) and light.

[Strawberries: plant new bought plants, if applicable.]

Late Feb, sow carrots # 2 (flameweed);

Really finish transplanting spinach. If needed, presprout 4oz/bed spinach for 1 week before sowing.

Till and sow areas for clover cover crops (eg grapes, eggplant beds), or oats, from 2/15.                    

Transplant fall-sown onions ½-3/4” deep, when no thicker than pencils. Weed over-wintered spinach, kale, collards.

In greenhouse sow broccoli #2 (2 weeks after 2nd), (shallots), lettuce #4, hoophouse cukes.

Perennials: Finish weeding. Give compost, if not done in fall, including strawberries and grapes.  See list for January.  Transplant bushes, canes, crowns if needed. Mulch. Finish pruning blueberries, ribes. Prune grapes before 3/21 – see last year’s log notes about replacement limbs needed, etc. Summer raspberries: cut out old canes. Install irrigation. Prepare sites for new grapevines, if needed.

Vates kale over-wintered Photo Twin Oaks Community
Vates kale over-wintered
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Harvest: (Chard?), collards, kale, spinach, leeks.

Harvesting carrots, covering spinach

Hope those of you in the US had a good Thanksgiving holiday. We had a lovely meal here at Twin Oaks, and followed our tradition of going round the room giving each person a few minutes to say what they feel thankful for or appreciative of this year. Naturally, with about 90-100 people in the dining room, that takes a while! Many people appreciated the efforts of the garden crew and other food producers.

Since then, back to work! We stop having garden shifts for the year on December 6, so we are focusing on the tasks we really want to get to done by then. One big one is harvesting all our fall carrots.

One of our long carrot beds earlier in the year.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

So far we have dug 15 bags (about 50 pounds each), and are about a third of the way up the plot. We reckon we need at least 30 bags for the winter, so we are in very good shape, looking at getting maybe 45 bags, if we keep moving. The carrots have a great flavor, thanks to the cold nights we’ve been having. And they are in good shape. Not many voles in evidence this fall, or tunneling bugs.

This year we didn’t manage to finish the second thinning, so we started the harvest at the unthinned end of the plot. They are a surprisingly decent size for carrots that only got one thinning. After sowing, we flameweed the carrots before they emerge, then as soon as we can see them we hoe between the rows. It really helps to have evenly spaced parallel rows. Next we weed and thin to one inch, taking away the weeds to the compost pile. Leaving broken carrot leaves and roots can attract the carrot rust fly (root fly), and we don’t want those! After a while we hoe again, including using our Valley Oak wheel hoes in the paths. Then we weed again and thin to 3 inches, saving the bigger thinnings for salad carrots. After that we leave them to size up. It takes about 3 months from sowing to final harvest, with carrots.

Young carrots after their first thinning.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Another of our main jobs now is weeding the seven spinach beds and covering them with wire hoops and rowcover. I do like to weed first, as weeds under rowcover grow so well, hidden from sight. We use double hoops for our overwintering spinach. The inner hoop is thick wire with an eye made at each side at ground level. the rowcover goes on top of this, then the thinner wire hoops which hook into the eyes of the inner hoops. (I have a drawing in my book, but I can’t seem to copy it here.) The hoops hold the rowcover in place when it gets windy, and the rowcover can be pushed up between the hoops while we harvest. In our climate (USDA winter hardiness zone 7a), spinach not only survives the winter; it grows whenever the temperature is above about 40F, which happens quite often under the rowcover. So, provided we don’t over-pick, we can keep the plants going all winter into spring. The hoops also hold the rowcover away from the leaves, preventing abrasion damage.

Risking Zombie Carrots: weeding tiny carrots versus weeding broccoli

After the flurry at the beginning of August to get the last warm weather crops sown, we’re now focusing on cool weather crops to feed us in the winter.

We sowed 4000 ft of carrots (Danvers 126) on August 4th, flamed them to kill the weeds that came up before the carrots, then hoed between the rows last week. This week we’ve begun the slow job of hand weeding the rows and thinning the carrots to an inch apart. At 4000 ft of rows, that’s 48,000 carrot seedlings to keep and thousands more weeds to remove to ensure the carrots’ happiness! Fortunately, we get faster at this skill with practice. We’re using marker flags as we go down the rows, to show where to start next time. It’s fairly obvious while the plants are all so small, but the flags also serve to measure our daily progress.

After this thinning, we won’t come back till the carrots are big enough for salads, when we’ll thin to 3″ apart. Then we’ll do the big harvest, washing, sorting and bagging, in November. We hope for at least 30 fifty-pound bags to see us through the winter. Last year and the one before, we fell behind with the weeding and had to abandon part of the plot. As always, we resolved not to repeat the same mistake two years running!

A bed of nicely thinned carrots,
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

We’re certainly off to a good timely start this year. And as a result of learning from last year’s mistakes, we decided to try overwintering a bed of later carrots (we’ve just sowed those). Last year we took the desperate measure of mowing the part of the plot we couldn’t weed, to stop the weeds from seeding. To my surprise, the carrots grew back! They were promptly named the Zombie Carrots. They survived the winter and grew into edible size. Sure, they never got big, but the flavor was especially sweet, in the cold weather. Previously we avoided overwintering carrots because of problems with voles tunneling underground and eating roots of whatever they could find. This winter we’ll test which wins: carrots or voles.

Finding time to weed carrots wouldn’t be so hard if it was the only task on our list. Not so.  (If carrots lose out, the best we can hope for is Zombie Carrots!) We are also tackling (larger) weeds in the (larger) fall broccoli. Our plan is to remove the weeds, then broadcast a mix of medium red clover, large white clover and crimson clover. If all goes according to plan and the clover seed gets enough rain or overhead irrigation, it will grow slowly over the fall and winter, and then take off in the spring when the broccoli is dead. We’ll bush hog the dead broccoli in spring and leave the clover growing for the full year to replenish the soil, just mowing from time to time to control annual weeds. When it works, it’s great. But we have to get rid of the weeds soon, to give it a good chance of success.

In March, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

So this weeding competes for our attention with the carrot weeding. Happily, they are different types of work: patient detailed work or energetic, vigorous pulling or hoeing. Some weather conditions suggest one job over the other; some people prefer one type of work over the other. The broccoli weeding makes a good energetic start to the morning, when conditions are damp and chilly. The carrot weeding makes for a more mellow finish to the shift. And it all makes a change from harvesting 52 buckets of tomatoes!

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.