Workhorse Crops for January

Our hoophouse with a December snowfall. Pam Dawling

We’re solidly in the darker and colder half the year for our monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops (asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash). These crops are reliable and productive under a range of conditions. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as December.

Winter is a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, which crops to grow, and your growing methods. Perhaps this will be your first gardening year? If so, welcome! Use the search box to find specific info, or click the blog category to find some further reading. Hopefully, we all have our garden plans made and our seeds ordered. Maybe we are already looking at a planting schedule.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in January

Potato Onions

Yellow Potato Onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In January, we can plant small small potato onions outdoors.  We prepare the bed in the late fall and mulch it with hay, to plant in January. We rake off the mulch, plant the onion bulbs and then lay the mulch back on the bed, to control weeds and somewhat to insulate the little onion bulbs. These smallest potato onions are very cold-hardy, and will grow up to produce a single 3” (7.5 cm) large onion. A few will grow and subdivide to produce more small onions. Click the link to read the details.

Indoor sowings for later transplanting outside or in the hoophouse

In our greenhouse we fire up our germinator cabinets and sow our first lettuce and early cabbage (Early Jersey Wakefield and Faroa) and scallions in mid-January. The following week we sow our tomatoes to plant out in the hoophouse, and at the end of the month, spinach if we have not got enough sown in our hoophouse to transplant as bare-root transplants.

Flats of cabbage seedlings in our greenhouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in January

In the hoophouse we are sowing a second or third round of crops, mostly successions of greens and radishes. We have already pulled our first and second radishes, and some of the Asian greens.

This March we will be using a half-bed in the hoophouse for some early green bush beans. Like our other warm weather crops, these can be planted in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. Two cautions with green beans in the hoophouse: buy a very upright variety, as the plants will be more sprawling than they are outdoors. Outdoors we grow Provider and Bush Blue Lake (both very reliable and productive), and in the hoophouse we like Strike. The second bean caution is that we have found the edge beds too cold for beans when we need to sow them, in March. Don’t plant them now, but order seeds of an upright variety and plan a non-edge bed. I’ll say more in March.

We have also planned our next round of early warm-weather crops, which we will transplant in late March and early April. Tomatoes and zucchini/summer squash are on our Workhorse list

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

We stop filling gaps in most of the Asian greens at the end of December, because they will start to bolt in January and/or because they are mature and we will be clearing the space to sow something else. Tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana, Pac Choi, Chinese Cabbage, Yukina Savoy, all need to be eaten during January.  We sow spinach (the Racehorse Crop) in mid-January, to transplant in the hoophouse and outdoors.

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

On January 24 we sow Vates kale and Morris Heading collards in the ground in the hoophouse, in the space recently freed up by the Chinese cabbage. For 1080ft outdoors, we need 108ft of seedling rows. We can fit 14 rows of seedlings across a 4ft (1.2 m) bed.

See November’s information on Follow-On Crops, and Filler Greens (short rows of greens sown in October to fill unexpected spaces).

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in January

We still have workhorse crops to harvest outdoors: chard, kale and collards, and perhaps cabbages. We’re down to three of our 14 workhorse crops to harvest outdoors in January, but we have the Racehorse Crop, spinach, too, and also luscious hoophouse greens.

Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature I’ve seen it survive. We just had one night at that temperature, much colder than anything else so far this winter.

Chard can still be harvested outdoors if we covered it with hoops and rowcover. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). We have succeeded in keeping chard alive outdoors right through the winter, if we cover it.

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested in January. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow. In October, November, February and March, we can harvest leaves from these plants once a week. In December and January, once each month is more like what we can hope for. Chard and senposai do OK with only 6 leaves left.

Hoophouse Workhorse harvests in January

We are harvesting leaves from our hoophouse Bright Lights chard at an adolescent size, cutting them into ribbons, and chopping the colorful stems, for salad mixes. Later, when the days lengthen, we’ll be able to harvest leaves for cooking.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

The Red Russian and White Russian kales are ready to harvest now (we were a bit late with getting a successful sowing in September). Russian kales belong to the napus group of kales, which are better able to make growth in low light levels than oleracea types like the Vates we grow outdoors. Vates is our star outdoors, because it is more cold-hardy than any other kale I’ve found. The Russian kales have a tendency to wilt after harvesting, so we move fast and stand the leaves up in the buckets. We add some water to the buckets before rushing them to the walk-in cooler. (We do this with chard, turnip greens and Tokyo bekana too.)

The hoophouse senposai is on its third round of harvests, just two weeks after the second, which was one week after the first. This clearly demonstrated the slower rate of growth as temperatures and daylight decrease. The short days do cause plant growth to slow down, but this is not the only factor. Soil temperature is another. In our hoophouse, the soil temperature is still 50F (10C) in early January.

But hey! The length of daylight is now increasing! On the shortest day, December 21, we have 9 hours and 34 minutes of daylight, from 7.21 am to 4.55 pm. The mornings continue to get darker by a few minutes, taking a month to get back to 7.21, from a latest of 7.25 am. Meanwhile the evenings are getting lighter, gaining us 6 minutes by January 5. I’m typing this on my laptop onto a USB stick, as we are in day 3 of a power outage. I appreciate the lighter evenings! By January 21 we will be up to 10 hours of daylight!

Workhorse Crops from storage in January

Storage crops come into their own in December and January, once outdoor growth has slowed down. The flavor of stored sweet potatoes reaches its peak in late January! Besides the Workhorse Crops of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and garlic, there are many other root crops. See my posts Root Crops for the Month. Use hardneck garlic first, as it stores for only for 4-6 months. Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months.

Eat up your acorn and other pepo types of winter squash, as they store for only 1-4 months. Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole pumpkin can easily store for a whole year at room temperature. They do have hard shells and need a hefty cleaver to cut them open.

Our white potatoes are keeping well in the root cellar down at 40F-50F (5C-10C). We air it about once a week. We open the door on mild nights or chilly overcast days, depending what we get and what we need. Potatoes in storage after their first month are no longer respiring much at all. They should be dormant, and not in need of many air changes.

Sweet potatoes on a plate.
Photo Brittany Lewis

Our sweet potatoes are very delicious. We are eating about 40-50lbs (19-23 kilos) a week.

Stored cabbage can also be a boon, and this is also a good time to explore all the pickles and canned and frozen produce you put up earlier.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for January: Making Schedules.

Screenshot Crop Planning Cycle

We continue our Garden Planning, ordering seeds and planning schedules of field planting and greenhouse seedling starting. In January we start sowing seeds indoors, and need our schedule figured out for that. We also need to pay attention to germination temps for various crops, so that we get them off to a good start, matched with crops needing similar temperatures in each germination cabinet.

Garden Planning

Our planning clipboards in action. Photo Pam Dawling

Garden Planning

This is the easiest time of year for many of us to plan next year’s garden. If you are in a hot climate zone, or the southern hemisphere, come back to this in six months!

The advantages of good planning are:

  • Make the most productive use of your land.
  • Use the growing season to do the planting and harvesting, without stopping to do calculations
  • Pace yourself, enjoy your life!
  • Reduce stress and confusion
  • Become a better farmer – keep good records, learn from the experience.
  • Invest in your future – Planning gets easier each year – just tweak last year’s plan.
  • For commercial growers, good planning helps you earn a good income.

Design a planning and recordkeeping system you like, so you’ll use it. There are web-based tools, spreadsheets, worksheets and notebooks. Do you prefer clipboards, computers, or photos? Build in the ability to adapt the plan if conditions change.

Web-based systems like AgSquared, COG-Pro and the smaller-scale Gardenplanner.southernexposure.com and  phone apps store a lot of information and let you make changes, which automatically transfer to other pages. But how good is your broadband service?  Could you reliably enter and retrieve information when you need it? We often have outages, and this would be just too frustrating.

We use a lot of spreadsheets. You can make your own, or copy others. During the year we follow printed sheets on clipboards – we don’t often need the computer. The program does all the calculations. You can quickly sort out selected parts of the information and rearrange it. You can print out the sheets and hang them on clipboards for daily use.

Some people use worksheets – printed pages to provide the plan and for you to enter what you do. For the computer-averse, these are good, but leave you to do the arithmetic.

Screenshot Crop Planning Cycle

The farming or gardening year is a cycle, with no beginning and no end. You can start doing better planning at any time of year, busting into the circle diagram below at any point, although I do recommend clarifying your goals before making any big changes. But the slowest season does offer the most time, and a natural break in the crops. Gather your records and notes, your seed catalogs, your maps, and all the schedules and spreadsheets you used this past year.

0. First, clarify your goals. Don’t plan a garden that is designed for someone else.

  1. The Money: If you are growing vegetables to earn a living, calculate how much money you need to support your household, and your farm.
  2. Markets: Figure how best to do that with the land and labor you have available. A CSA? Farmer’s market? Roadside stand? Restaurant sales? You’ll need an idea of prices, so do some research!
  3. Crops: Then decide which crops to grow. Choose vegetables based on demand balanced with the financial value of those crops and the practicalities of growing in your climate, with the land you have use of. I have written before about our process for deciding which crops to grow. Consider ease of growing, suitability for your farm, productivity, profitability, popularity. Provide critical mass for the whole season and a diversity of crops. Honor your crop rotation!
  4. Harvest Schedule: You might be surprised that it is recommended to next determine how much of which crop you want to harvest when. In other words, plan your Harvest Schedule before planning any planting schedules. List how much of each crop to have ready for harvest each week
  5. Planting quantities: Also calculate (from yield tables such as in Sustainable Market Farming) how much you need to plant to achieve your harvest goals. The average person eats 160-200 pounds of fresh vegetables per year (USDA); the average CSA share feeds 2 or 3 people; an annual share will need to include about 500 pounds of 40-50 different vegetables, distributed, say, once a week for 8 months and once a month for 4 months.

Add about 10%, perhaps, to allow for things not going as planned. This could lead to a surplus of some crops, which you might be able to substitute for the shortages. Consider crop spacings, as these will determine how much space each crop needs.

6. Field Planting Schedule: Next, calculate the planting dates that will lead to harvests on your desired dates. Pause to look at the work flow and reconsider if you have too much work in any given week, and if you could make a change to avoid that problem. Take into account Days to Maturity of the varieties you plan to grow, any slowing down or speeding up because of temperatures very different from the ideal spring temperatures the catalog writers had in mind when they came up with those numbers. Draw up your list of outdoor planting dates, along with varieties, row feet, spacing, notes and space to write down what you actually do.OPS

7. Seedlings Schedule: Decide which crops to direct sow and which to transplant. For all the crops you will transplant, prepare a schedule for growing the seedlings. Pause to make sure your growing space can accommodate the numbers of flats and pots you hope to grow.Seedlings Schedule

    1. Pros of direct seeding
      • Less work than transplanting
      • Less money compared to buying starts
      • No need for a greenhouse and equipment
      • Better drought tolerance – roots grow without damage
      • Some crops don’t transplant easily
      • Some crops have millions of plants! (Carrots)
    2. Cons of direct seeding
      • Uses more seed
      • Uses more time thinning
      • Occupies the land longer
      • Maybe harder to get started in cold (or hot) conditions
    3. Pros of transplanting
      • Start earlier than outside, get earlier harvests
      • Start seed in more ideal conditions in greenhouse, better germination, more fun!
      • Easier to care for new seedlings in a greenhouse
      • Protected plants grow quicker
      • Select sturdiest plants, compost the rest
      • More flexibility if weather turns bad. Plants still grow!
      • Fit more crops into the season
      • Use time windows for quick cover crops
      • Save on seed costs
    4. Cons of transplanting
      1. Extra time caring for the starts
      2. Transplant shock can delay harvest

More attention needed to watering new plants

8. Maps: Make scale maps and fill in the main crops to grow in each section, in keeping with your crop rotation. Fit the lesser crops in the spaces left.Map

9. Packing more in: If you want more than your space allows for, (including wanting to pack your crops in a smaller space, so you can grow more cover crops), then consider succession plantings, intercropping, relay planting and follow-on crops (removing an old crop and flipping the space for another crop in the remainder of the growing season). If you have plenty of growing space, including for cover crops, then you might go for an EXtensive rather than INtensive garden, and use equipment to deal with weeds.

10. Tweak Your Plan: look at the overview of your planning so far and especially look for ways to improve. Do you want to extend your season in either direction? It’s easier to get extra harvests for a month or two in fall from mature plants you already have, than it is to get harvests a week earlier in the spring. Keep your highest priorities in mind: crops for your best markets, the signature crops you are famous for, and food for your household. Perhaps an old crop is not worth keeping, if pulling it helps you establish a new crop in a timely way. Use all available space for food crops or cover crops. Be sure to transfer any changes made in one spreadsheet to the related ones.

11. Plan B: Write some notes on what you might do if something goes wrong. Keep lists of fast-growing crops, phone numbers of neighbors, articles about dealing with floods, etc. If something does go wrong, write down what happened and why, what you did and whether it was successful, and any ideas that might have worked better, so you are better prepared next year.

12. Record-keeping: be sure to keep good records so that in a year you can tweak your plan to make it better for next year. Make recording easy to do. Minimize the paperwork. Record your planting dates and harvest start and finish dates right on your planting schedule. Have a daily practice of writing down what was done that day: Planting dates, harvest start and end dates for each planting of each crop; the amount of work done on each crop; the amount harvested. Allow time to do that, without losing your lunch break! At the beginning of the winter, have a Crop Review Meeting, discuss and write up what worked and what didn’t, to learn from the experience and do better next year. If your records suggest adjusting a date next year, adjust it to halfway between last year’s plan and what seems ideal – gradually zero in on the likely date without wild pendulum swings based on variable weather.

Garden planning manual

 

Workhorse Crops for December

Multicolored chard from our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve entered the colder half the year for this monthly series of 14 Workhorse Crops: asparagus, beans, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards/kale, garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, winter squash, zucchini/summer squash. These crops are reliable under a wide range of conditions.

I hope this blogpost series will help you become more productive and profitable (if selling) as you go into winter. Maybe you gardened for the first time this year, or expanded production in spring (orders to seed companies suggest many people did!) Maybe you have less time at home than you expected when you started planting in spring. Winter brings a natural opportunity to reconsider the size of your garden, your crops, and your methods.

You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as November.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in December

If you are in a warmer climate than our zone 7a, you may still have the chance to plant garlic.  See Workhorse Crops for November.

Garlic scallions prepared for sale. Typepad.com

Garlic scallions

We could still plant garlic scallions in December. See Garlic Scallions and  October’s Workhorse Crops  post for information about planting garlic scallions (baby garlic plants).

Garlic scallions can be grown at many times of year. This is news to many of us! By planting later it is possible to extend the garlic scallion harvest period out later. It is important to plant them in conditions where they can grow some good roots before getting too cold. Roots can grow whenever the soil is not frozen. Tops grow whenever the air is above 40°F (4.5°C) Planting in a hoophouse in November or December could possibly provide earlier garlic scallions then planting outdoors in early November. Because the plants are growing faster in warmer conditions. I have not tried this myself yet.

Bulb formation and drying down of bulb garlic is controlled by daylength, but because you do not need bulbing and drying down, all sorts of dates are possible!

Yellow potato onions.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Potato Onions

We could plant small and medium-sized potato onions outdoors in December.  We have usually also prepared a bed and mulched it with hay, to plant the small potato onions in January. Click the links to get the details.

Hoophouse workhorse crops to plant in December

In the hoophouse we now have all the space fully planted. We intend to do this by November 20 each year, or earlier. We are starting to plant a second round of crops, mostly successions of greens and radishes. We have already pulled our first radishes (which sound like they are sneaking their way into being classified as a workhorse crop!)

Unusually, this fall, we found ourselves with some open space during October and November. I am pulling together information on fast crops we could grow in future years, before the late November and early December crops.

Once we have our hoophouse fully planted, we replace any crop we harvest, keeping all the space fully used. See November’s information on Follow-On Crops, and Filler Greens (short rows of greens sown in October to fill unexpected spaces.

Vates kale – our winter outdoor favorite.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in December

We can still have plentiful quantities of workhorse crops to harvest outdoors: cabbage, carrots, chard, kale and collards, and also luscious hoophouse greens. Only four of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested outdoors in December, but the quantities are good, and we have the Racehorse Crop, spinach, too

We had our first frost of 2021 on November 3 – our latest first frost in the past fifteen years (approximately) has been November 15 2019.

Cabbage We harvest fall-planted cabbage from September 25 until November 30, or perhaps early December in milder years. Deadon (105d winter cabbage) is extremely cold hardy – we leave it outdoors until nights threaten to hit 10°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature I’ve seen it survive.

Carrots can be harvested in December, if we didn’t finish the job in November and we don’t want to risk feeding voles by leaving the carrots in the ground over the winter.

Chard can still be harvested outdoors if we covered it with hoops and rowcover. The outdoor killing temperature for unprotected Bright Lights chard is 22°F (–6°C); red chard survives down to 15°F (–9.5°C) and green chard to 10°F (–12°C). We have succeeded in keeping chard alive outdoors right through the winter, if we cover it. This year, we have abandoned it, as we ate so much chard through the summer and got tired of it! The chard did very well, and we lacked other summer greens like stored spring cabbages, and fall broccoli.

Alabama Blue collards.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Collards and Kale can be lightly harvested in December. Our mnemonic for sustainable harvesting of leafy greens is “8 for later”, meaning we leave at least eight inner leaves when harvesting the outer ones, to ensure the plants have enough strength to regrow. Chard and senposai do OK with only 6 leaves left.

Hoophouse chard in December.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Workhorse harvests in December

We have started harvesting our hoophouse Bright Lights chard in small amounts, cutting the leaves into ribbons, and chopping the colorful stems, for salad mixes.

The Red Russian and White Russian kales are usually ready from early December. This year we suffered from poor germination (old seed!) and the later resows are still too small. We have plenty of other greens to eat, from outdoors, and the hoophouse senposai is on its second round of harvests, just one week after the first.

Workhorse Crops from storage in December

Storage crops start to come into their own in December as outdoor growth slows down. Besides the Workhorse Crops of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and garlic, there are many root crops. See my posts Root Crops for the Month. Use hardneck garlic first, as it stores for only for 4-6 months. Softneck garlic can store for up to 7 months.

Know your winter squash! Use the ones with the shortest storage life first (and any damaged squash that won’t store longer). Acorn and other pepo types of winter squash store for 1-4 months; Maximas such as Cha Cha, Jarrahdale and Kabochas store for 3-5 months; Moschatas such as Butternuts and Cheese pumpkins will store for 8 months or even more. Seminole pumpkin can easily store for a whole year at room temperature.

Our white potatoes were sorted two weeks after the harvest. This one sorting makes a lot of difference to the quality and quantity of potatoes we will be able to eat. After two weeks, very little further rotting starts up. We cool the root cellar down to 50F after the first month, then to 40F, airing once a week (or less if cooling is not needed).

Sweet potatoes stored in off-duty wood seed flats.
Credit Nina Gentle

Our sweet potatoes are fully cured and delicious. We grow 4 kinds: Georgia Jet and Beauregard in roughly equal amounts, to hedge our bets; and two unnamed varieties we call Bill Shane’s White and Jubilee, in small quantities simply to preserve the genetic diversity. Georgia Jet is a bit faster (90 days compared to 100 days) and usually yields a little better for us than Beauregard.  Some New York growers report problems with Georgia Jet due to soft rots and malformed roots. Most growers really like this variety. Beauregard has light rose, red-orange or copper skin, dark orange flesh, uniformly shaped roots. Georgia Jet has a skin that is red-purple. I sometimes find the roots hard to tell apart when we have accidentally mixed them.

Garlic shoots poking through the mulch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for December

One task for us this month is to Free Trapped Garlic Shoots

14-16 days after planting, when we can see that more than half of the shoots have emerged, we free any garlic shoots trapped under particularly thick clumps of mulch. We investigate the spots where there should be a plant but isn’t. Ours are planted 5” (13 cm) apart. If we find garlic tops, we simply leave part of them exposed to the light. They will sort themselves out. We don’t leave any soil exposed, because we don’t want weeds to grow. This needs to be a fast-moving, efficient task, as there are thousands of plants. It’s also important to be patient and optimistic, and not start this job too early. The goal is to free the shoots that wouldn’t make it out unaided. Not to prematurely expose them all.

In December we continue Planning, including insurance crops. We calculate how much seed to buy, browse the catalogs, balancing trying different varieties on a small scale, and largely sticking to known successful varieties. See my recent post Reading Between the Lines in the Seed Catalogs. We hope to get our seed orders placed before the end of December. Since the Covid pandemic, lots more people have started growing food. This has led to some seed shortages. So if your heart is set on certain crops or certain varieties, order early to avoid disappointment. And to spread out the massive workload that the people working packing and shipping your seeds are dealing with. Appreciate them!

Root Crops in January

No Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in January!

Closing rowcovers after a winter spinach harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of root crops that we sow outdoors here in January. Nor are there any root crops to sow in the greenhouse. Most root crops do not transplant well, as the replanting does too much damage to the taproot. Some exceptions are celeriac and kohlrabi (a stem vegetable more than a root, although I do tend to lump it in with root crops.) I have heard beets can be transplanted, especially if in soil blocks or plugs, and I’ve even heard of people up north transplanting plugs of rutabagas. I tend to be skeptical of books saying this or that can’t be transplanted, as I have transplanted many things. But not yet rutabagas or beets. I did roll my eyes when I heard someone propose transplanting mini-soil-blocks of carrots, using a pair of tongs made with popsicle sticks!

We are in winter-hardiness sub-zone Zone 7a, with an average minimum temperature of 0° to 5° F (-18°C to -15°C).

An Easter Egg radish in the hoophouse in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Around January 26, we sow our last hoophouse radishes (sowing #6), Easter Egg, and White Icicle. This is our absolute last worthwhile sowing date. They will be ready for harvest from mid-March to mid-April, but if the weather is warm, or we fail to open the doors when we should, they will bolt before we get roots.

Our hoophouse radish sowing dates are 9/7, 9/30, 10/28, 11/22, 12/20, 1/27. Note that the sowing intervals are 23, 28, 25, 28, 38 days. The interval is much longer in December-January, as the rate of growth is so slow. There really is no point in sowing closer to the #5 sowing date, as the #6 will catch up in the warming days of late February and early March. The daylength is also increasing a lot by then, too.

If your hoophouse planting plans exceed the space you have, simply tweaking to a less frequent new harvest start could free up space to grow something else. Also consider a gap in radish supply, if other crops could make better use of the space. See Root Crops in September for more about our succession of hoophouse radish sowing dates.

In our double-layer hoophouse, turnips (and many cooking greens) can survive a hoophouse air temperature of 10.4°F (-12°C) without rowcover, -2.2°F (-19°C) with thick rowcover (1.25oz Typar/Xavan).

January photo of radishes sown in our hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in January

In central Virginia, there are normally no roots that we could be harvesting outdoors in January except parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish. The months with R in them are the horseradish harvest months. September to April have R in them, and the summer months do not!

We have already had outdoor night temperatures of 16°F/-9°C and 18°F/-8°C. Until temperatures drop to 12°F/-11°C, we could dig Danvers carrots, Cylindra beets, and any rowcovered rutabagas (swedes). Albina Verduna, and Lutz Winterkeeper beets are hardy down to 15°F (-9.5°C), as are most kohlrabi, rutabagas and rowcovered turnips. Covered beets, covered winter radish are OK down to 10°F (-12°C). This is too chancy for us! We like to gather our root crops in and have them safely stored.

We store our root crops washed, in perforated plastic bags, in a walk-in cooler. Root cellars and cool basements are also possible storage sites, and in the past, I stored root crops in boxes of damp sand or woodash.

In the hoophouse we can normally harvest radishes #3 (sown October 30) all through January, from 12/15 to 2/1. This winter I notice we have already harvested most of them (1/6). We harvest our first turnips (sown around October 13) by pulling out the biggest from January 5 (or even late December), until mid-February, by which time we can have made a start on the second sowing (October 25). We thin the second sowing in early January or late December.

Young midwinter turnips in our hoophouse.
photo Pam Dawling

See my list of Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables 2020 for a more complete picture of “Harvesting in Time”

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in January

Check stored vegetables

From storage, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips, if we grew them. Stored crops need to be checked for decay at least once a month.

Rolls of rowcover in our hoophouse ready to pull over the beds on cold nights.
Photo Wren Vile

Inner tunnels in the hoophouse for cold nights

As noted above, inner rowcovers can make a big improvement to nighttime air temperatures in a hoophouse. We are fortunate to have a climate in central Virginia that means we don’t need inner covers most of the time. We watch the forecast and if we think it will drop to 8°F (-13°C) outdoors, we pull over the rowcovers. For winter crops we don’t use hoops. We have separate lengths of rowcover for each bed. Some people prefer a single large sheet. We find we can set the roll of rowcover at one end of the bed and simply walk with the free end down to the far end of the bed, leaving only a little bit of tweaking to get everything covered.

In the morning, if we feel pretty sure we’ll need the rowcovers again, we just pull the covers into the aisles, leaving every other path free to walk in. If we think we won’t need the rowcovers the next night we roll them up, giving us more space to work, and lengthening the lifespan of the rowcover by not exposing it to much sunlight.

Special Root Crop Topic for January in Central Virginia

Garden Plans Part Two

This garden planning task is not just about root crops. We had our Crop Review in November, and then inventoried our leftover seeds, planned what to grow for next year, and ordered our seeds. See Preparing to order seeds, if you haven’t sent in your orders yet.

We have made our garden maps, and specific plans for important crops with either lots of varieties (tomatoes), lots of sowings (sweet corn) or some combination (lettuce, broccoli and cabbage).

One task we need to complete by mid-January is to prepare our greenhouse seedlings schedule, because here we start sowings in mid-late January. We also tidy up the greenhouse (currently growing lettuce) and test, repair or replace vital equipment (like a seedling heating mat) and supplies like Bt and cover crops seeds.

Tomato seedlings (for our hoophouse) on a heat mat in our greenhouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another January task is to prepare a new Field Planting Schedule, or Outdoor Planting Schedule, as we call it here to distinguish it from our hoophouse schedule and our seedlings schedule. This is a list in date order of what to sow or transplant, how long the rows are, the space between rows, the space between plants (for transplants) and where to plant.

We also plan crops that will go in our raised beds from January to July. We plan the second part of the year in June, giving ourselves more flexibility.

See my Mother Earth News  Garden Planning online course for details

The map of our raised bed area, showing several years of crops using colored pens.
Photo Pam Dawling

We also revise and update our Garden Calendar (monthly task list). For those who want to think more widely about the coming year, here’s a link to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month

Our garden planning wraps up by mid-February, with all the budgets, crew selection and shift decisions (afternoons in cold weather, mornings in hot weather –  we’re mostly half-day gardeners, with one or two stalwart all-day workers)

 

Preparing to order seeds

Preparing to order seeds: 6 steps + 3 extra tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Earth News Fair

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

I have a couple of slideshows on SlideShare.net,

See Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production 2019 Pam Dawling

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

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

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

 First, a basic 6 steps of garden planning

  1. See How to Decide Which Crops to Grow.

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

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in a Winstrip tray
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

Seeds stored in glass jars
Photo courtesy of Monticello

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • How Much Garlic to Plant

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Choosing varieties.

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

 

  1. Formatting and placing seed orders

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

Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:

  1. Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

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

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

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

  1. VEGETABLE CROPS THAT OFFER FAST RETURNS

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Grow Great Vegetables in Virginia, by Ira Wallace

Book Review: Grow Great Vegetables in Virginia, by Ira Wallace, Timber Press, 2020. 240 pages, line drawings and full color photos, $19.95.

Here is a great book for beginning gardeners or those new to Virginia. Ira’s friendly style will encourage everyone wanting to grow their own food, whether you’re one of the new “Covid Victory Gardeners”, newly retired from your day job, or newly determined to eat better food, this book will help you towards success. There are not many authors who could write five books at once, but Ira has given us five regional books for the southeast, with more details than her earlier Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. She has written for gardeners in Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina.

I’m reviewing the Virginia book, which includes an introduction to Virginia, to gardening and to garden planning. Most of the book is a series of month-by-month lessons on what to plant; what you could be harvesting; and seasonal topics. The harvest lists are very encouraging! 11 crops in January, 27 in July, 46 in October. And there are the stored crops too. I like the month-by-month format. It enables new gardeners to learn just enough for each month’s tasks, and get ready to learn something new.

There’s a map of Virginia and the winter-hardiness zones, and at the back of the book there’s a chart of the average coldest temperatures in each of the zones. I wished for a heat zones map as well, because climate is not only about winter temperatures. Summer weather has quite an impact too! There are good descriptions of the growing season in various regions of Virginia, and the kinds of weather that come our way.

In the gardening intro, there is a table of organic sources of plant nutrients; encouragement to try succession planting (making several sowings over the course of the growing season to keep fresh supplies of that vegetable rolling in); and an explanation of planting “hills” (which might be better flat when it’s hot and dry). I remember being new in this country and not understanding hills at all, because books didn’t explain what they are, why you might use them, or how far apart they are. I proceeded to plant in rows, as I had done in England, and the crops grew fine. Eventually I learned what hills are. They’re not essential, and not necessarily better than rows, but maybe good for small home gardens. Read Ira’s book! She explains her information clearly, and her reasons for doing things the way she does. She explains why we transplant in the afternoon on an overcast or drizzly day. We live in a climate with hot summers, we don’t transplant in the mornings!

In the planning section, there is a full-page chart classifying vegetable crops as easy-to-grow, slightly more challenging and (undeniably) challenging. Each category is subdivided into warm season, cool season and “in need of extra space”, so no one need waste time on monstrous crops at the wrong time of year. Many paths to failure eliminated! There is encouragement to weigh up the value of keeping an old tomato planting going, versus getting a winter cover crop planted. Growing food well involves not forming attachments to particular plants! Ira says you can more than double the yield in a small garden by having some transplants ready to pop into any spaces that open up.

Planning includes being prepared for surprise opportunities to pop in a catch crop of something fast-maturing, and that idea is beside a list of crops by season in case you need more ideas. There are instructions on germination testing of seeds held over from the previous year, and a chart of seed longevity. Clearly one of Ira’s goals is to reduce your chances to fail and increase your chances to succeed! The perfect gardening mentor! And one who is not trying to part you from your money. Here are resources for finding used tools free or inexpensively priced ones, and the excellent advice to view garden gear in use before buying.

There is information about growing lettuce year round, starting with basic pointers that many books forget to tell you: lettuce needs light to germinate; don’t sow it too deep; store your seeds cool and dry – they won’t germinate well if they’ve got hot; make new sowings frequently; use shade in hot weather and put ice on the seedbed; sow more frequently in late summer and early fall and use cold-tolerant varieties even though it’s still hot when you are sowing, because as day length decreases, a one day delay in sowing can lead to a one week delay in harvest.

Ira Wallace, the author of Growing Great Vegetables in Virginia

There are useful charts of days to maturity, cold-hardiness of fall crops, and when to plant for fall harvest based on your first frost date. The fall garden is too often overlooked, and yet it is a wonderful chance to grow more fresh food and some to preserve for winter that will have been harvested closer to when you want to eat it. Ira reminds us to keep picking through the summer days, to encourage plants to keep producing more. When we get to the November chapter there is a section on Winter Garden Awareness. Although we aren’t sowing new crops, we do have plenty to harvest, and removing weeds will make for a better garden next year. There will inevitably be less to harvest in February and March, so don’t waste what we have growing before the Winter Solstice. Plan for the fall garden to mature by late November. Not much growing will happen after that.

Mulch over the rows to keep crops alive, or harvest and store before the coldest weather. Virginia snow is not the beneficial blanket that northern snows can be. Ours is wet, fleeting, heavy and unreliable. We need hoops and row covers to protect plants outdoors. Our winter gardens are susceptible to drying out the crops while the ground is frozen, and drowning them when it’s waterlogged.

After the month-by-month section is a multi-page chart of planting and harvesting. Three pages for zone 6 and three for zones 7 & 8. These are followed by an alphabetical crop section. Globe artichokes in Virginia – Ira has grown them as an annual, as other famous southern gardeners have done. Five blueberry bushes will feed four people – information like this is priceless, because you need to know before you plant and it will be a few years later that you discover the answer by yourself. Ira is part of Acorn Community, who run Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a company selling open pollinated seed suited to the southeast. And she is broad-minded enough to recommend some quick-maturing broccoli hybrids “since timing is everything with spring plantings”, alongside OP varieties for fall. I appreciated the advice on garlic varieties, because I only know well the two varieties we grow, and people often ask me for recommendations. Nootka Rose for a long-storing softneck, Asian Tempest for early maturity, Music and Killarney Red for large cloves and easy peeling. The page on Muscadine (scuppernong) grapes is very useful to transplanted gardeners with no experience of them. Jerusalem artichokes are another crop you might not have considered. Easy, reliable, with you for life (self-propagating), they could be part of every self-reliant garden. Parsnips are another under-appreciated vegetable, “an old staple worth rediscovering”, very cold-tolerant and tasty. And there are crop-saving tips such as not to plant out peppers until the dogwood blossoms have fallen. In other words, don’t stunt them by planting out while we still have cold weather. A lesson I still need to learn.

This is a very accessible book, user-friendly, a great gift for yourself or other Virginia gardeners.

I have a few gripes with the publisher. Why get books printed in China rather than North America? Why not use recycled paper? I like the artistic background line drawings of plants (mostly a repeated artichoke head) lightly peppered throughout. The green spot-color drawings are OK to give a “quaint” feel to the book, but they often don’t match well with what Ira is saying. Ira is my neighbor and I know her favorite garden tools don’t look like these drawings!

Why not let authors provide more of the photos, so they are a better match for the text? I’ve given up trying to grow runner beans in summer in Virginia, because they don’t set pods when it is hot, (much as I love them – as a Brit, I was raised on them). There’s a photo of a (non-Virginian?) dog guarding a July harvest that I feel skeptical about. Early in the book, there is mention of runner beans as a challenging cool weather crop. The Plant and Harvest chart has them as planted in either Feb/Mar for Apr/May harvest, or July/early Aug planting for September and October harvest.

There’s a photo of kale and rainbow chard leaves, captioned as “rainbow kale.” If authors supplied the photos we wouldn’t get mix ups like this! Eye candy photos are attractive, yes, but I think people buying a gardening book will want clear accurate info above all else. I’m happy Ira got some photos of black and brown people gardening included. Most of the photos have no people, but other humans do help us relate to what we’re doing and why.

Sustainable Farming Practices slideshow, Mother Earth News blogposts, Modern Farmer

Greenhouse interior with early spring seedling flats.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

I just got home from the Organic Growers’ School Spring Conference near Asheville, NC. On Friday, I gave an all-day workshop with Ira Wallace, on Year-Round Growing on the Farm and Garden. The classroom at Creekside Farm, Arden was packed. This farm also has an educational center, which made a great setting for our workshop. The weather was awful, so we didn’t explore the very wet farm much. We had plenty of indoor teaching material including show-and-tell. The funniest part was my Julia Child chicken-on-the-floor moment when I dropped a freshly -made soil block on the nice wood floor.

On Saturday and Sunday, I gave  my Sustainable Farming Practices presentation, which is now on www.SlideShare.net, and posted here for convenient viewing. Just click the diagonal arrow icon to see it full screen.

Now I have a couple of lovely days at home, working in the hoophouse and greenhouse. The crew is steadily composting more beds, sowing peas and transplanting endless spinach beds (our spring is short and then heats up, so to get a longer spring spinach season, we do all transplants.)

Summer Lettuce Nursery Seedbed with Concept, De Morges Braun, New Red Fire and Loma lettuces.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

My post 20 Tips for Success in Germinating Seeds in Hot Weather was #8 in the top blogposts for 2018. My newest post on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog is

We transplant all our spring spinach, to maximize the length of the harvest period
Photo Denny Ray McElyea

The Pros and Cons of Direct Sowing and Transplanting

One of the pages in our Field Manual, which we revise each winter.
Photo VABF

In early January I posted 13 Steps to Planning your Vegetable Garden

Elsewhere for interesting gardening and farming reading, I am enjoying The Modern Farmer an online and digital subscription magazine with lots of thought-provoking and useful articles. Some recent ones I really like include

Can Hydroponic Farming Be Organic? The Battle Over The Future Of Organic Is Getting Heated.

Does Milk Actually Make Kids Grow Taller?

Trump Administration Rolls Back School Nutrition Standards

Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

America’s First Cash Crop: Tobacco

Urban Gardening 101: How to Deal with Contaminated Soil

My next speaking event is the Virginia Festival of the Book,and then the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC. There I’m presenting Lettuce Year Round and Cool Season Hoophouse Crops. Here’s the probable schedule. This is a change from what I posted earlier. I”m replacing Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables with a new one, Cool Season Hoophouse Crops.

Hoophouse beds in November.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

 

Garden Planning, Winter Harvests and Speaking Events

Garden Planning Field Manual
Photo VABF

‘Tis the season – after the relaxation of the holidays – time for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out.

I notice that readers of my blog have been looking up the Twin Oaks Garden Calendar,  also known as The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. You can search the category Garden Task List for the Month, or you can click on the linked name of the month you want. At the end you can click on “Bookmark the Permalink” if you might want to refer to this in future. Remember, we’re in central Virginia, winter-hardiness zone 7a. Adjust for your own climate.

Meanwhile, despite the turn to cold weather, we are not huddled indoors all the time. Each day, one or two of us sally forth to harvest enough vegetables to feed the hundred people here at Twin Oaks Community. Outdoors, in the raised bed area, we have winter leeks, Vates kale, spinach and senposai. We could have had collards but we lost the seeds during the sowing period, so we have lots of senposai instead. Senposai leaves (the core of the plant may survive 10F), are hardy down to about 12F. I noticed some got a bit droopy when we had a night at 15F. Collards  are hardier – Morris Heading (the variety we grow) can survive at least one night at 10F.

Hoophouse December View
Photo Kathleen Slattery

In the hoophouse, we have many crops to choose from: lettuce, radishes, spinach, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, Tokyo Bekana, turnips and turnip greens, scallions, mizuna, chard, Bull’s Blood beet greens.

Hoophouse scallions ready to harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pak Choy and Chinese cabbage heads are filling out, ready for harvest in January.

Tokyo Bekana, a non-heading Asian green,  has large tender leaves, which we are adding to salad mixes. It can be used as a cooking green, but only needs very light cooking. It will bolt soon, so we are harvesting that vigorously, not trying to save it for later.

The kale and senposai in the hoophouse are being saved for when their outdoor counterparts are inaccessible due to bad weather. The spinach is added to salad mixes, or harvested for cooking when outdoors is too unpleasant, or growth slows down too much.

Hoophouse winter lettuce: Green Forest and Red Salad Bowl, two of our fifteen varieties.
Photo Wren Vile

Another kind of planning I’m doing right now is scheduling my speaking events for the coming year and practicing my presentations. Last week I updated my Events page, and this week I’m adding a new event: The September 21-22 Heritage Harvest Festival.

I might pick up a couple of events in late April and early June, but that’s just speculation at this point.

Right now I need to practice for the CASA Future Harvest Conference January 11-13. Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables and a 10-minute “Lightning Session” on using graphs to plan succession plantings for continuous harvest. Click the link or my Events page for more on this.

Ate more Eat-All Greens; Changed vegetable crop rotation

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

Our Eat-All Greens are still alive, if not exactly thriving. The peas have been harvested to death; the kohlrabi, beets and chards are never going to amount to anything; some of the more tender Asian mustard greens are showing some frost damage.

On 12/10 we made one last crew foray to harvest – not greens, but roots! I’d noticed in the wet mild weather of late November the radishes and turnips had fattened up. We can always use a few more turnips, I thought. Plus, I was inspired by the quick-pickle radishes we’d had recently. See sustainexistence sustainable sustenance for our existence, the local foodie blog written by one of my fellow Twin Oakers. 

As we were harvesting the two and a half buckets of radishes, someone came by who said he was planning to pickle radishes, so I told him we’d keep him busy! (Actually, ten days later, there are many left to deal within the walk-in cooler.) The daikons predictably did well, as they are a fall crop. Other good varieties included Crimson Giant, which I picked up at a seed swap, and White Icicle. Sparkler (a small radish was unsurprisingly tough and woody at this overgrown stage.

We also pulled a 5-gallon bucket of delectable small turnips, including some rather pretty Mezza Lunga Bianca Colletto Viola from Seeds from Italy.

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Meanwhile we have been working on our garden planning for next year. Back in 1996 we devised a 10-plot crop rotation, which has generally served us very well for 19 years. The first few years we tweaked it a bit, but we haven’t needed major changes. You can see our pinwheel rotation plan in my book Sustainable Market Farming and in my slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops  on SlideShare.net.

Here you can see the original card version, complete with modifications. The central card disk is fastened with one of those brass-legged paperclips and can be turned one notch each year.

Original Twin Oaks Garden Crop Rotation Pinwheel
Original Twin Oaks Garden Crop Rotation Pinwheel

The bit we want to change is the fast-turnaround where the spring potatoes are followed by the fall broccoli and cabbage. This has worked well in terms of getting high usage from our land, and freeing up one plot in ten to be Green Fallow (all-year cover crops). We did that by undersowing the fall brassicas with clover about a month after transplanting, and then letting the clovers grow for a year and a half before disking in. The difficulties with such a fast turnaround in July are

  1. If we have a wet spring, and we plant the potatoes late, we have to terminate them early (by mowing the tops) and the yield isn’t as good as it might have been. Climate change suggests we might be in for more wet springs, and with El Nino upon us, this is a good time to switch.
  2. If the weather doesn’t co-operate in July, the soil might be too wet to harvest the potatoes when we want to, and too wet to disk in preparation for the transplanting. We need to build more climate resilience into our rotation!
  3. July is stressful enough – it’s hot and humid, people are taking their turn at having a vacation.
  4. If we are late transplanting the broccoli and cabbage, the plants are oversize and don’t do well, so we get reduced yields of broccoli and cabbage that year.
  5. We prefer transplanting in the evenings in the summer (cooler for us and for the plants), and if we get late into August, the daylight is getting too short to get much done.

And so, we are seizing the opportunity to make the switch. The opportunity comes because for the last several years we have not needed to grow winter squash in the vegetable garden because it is grown elsewhere on the farm by the Twin Oaks Seeds.

Fall broccoli undersown with clover. Photo Nina Gentle
Fall broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Our crop rotation contains several sequences of crops that we want to keep. For example, Fall brassicas/Green Fallow/early spring crop (Could be corn or potatoes, but not the spring broccoli and cabbage). Another sequence that works well for us is the Early corn/Garlic next to spring brassicas/fall carrots in one half, rye vetch and peas for no-till cover crop in the other half/paste tomatoes on the no-till the next year.

What we’ve planned for next year (a transition to our new plan) is to use the former winter squash plot for the fall brassicas/clover bit. This involves snipping that plot out of the pie and moving it after the corn #6/sweet potato and the spring potato/cantaloupe (which had morphed into 100% potatoes over the years), so that the newly housed fall brassicas can be followed by the clover year.

But that leaves potatoes only two years after other potatoes, and the late corn only two years after the middle corn, so we don’t want to do that more than once! So for 2017 onwards, we plan to insert the late corn & sweet potato/spring potato sequence after the clover, and move the early corn after the spring potatoes (when we have time to plant a winter-killed cover crop and make cultivation for the early corn easy). And switch the watermelon piece of the pie with the 3rd, 4th and 5th sweet corn successions to even out the years between corn patches.

June planted potatoes with hay mulch. Photo Twin Oaks Community
June planted potatoes with hay mulch.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

This will give potatoes, tomatoes, potatoes 3 or 4 years before the plot is nightshades again. With the corn  we get 3 years, 5 years and 2 years. Not ideal. But we don’t get much in the way of corn diseases (compared to tomato diseases) so it seems the best place to compromise.

If you get bored with holiday jigsaw puzzles and TV offerings, you could draw up your own version of our rotation, chop it up and rearrange it, and send us you suggestions. Remember to plan the winter cover crops too! Have fun!

Upcoming workshops, winter weather, preparing seed orders

First up, note this change of location for my workshop on December 11th. Adrianna Vargo from the Local Food Hub sent this notice of a change of location:

“Due to overwhelming demand (and a few grumpy farmers!) we have moved the location of next week’s workshop with Pam Dawling to accommodate more people.

The new location is:
Albemarle County Office Building
Room A
1600 5th Street Extended
Charlottesville VA 22902
Other details remain the same:

Providing for the Full Eating Season: Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests of Summer Vegetables, and Growing and Storing Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables

Date: Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Time: 3:00 – 6:00 pm
Location: Albemarle County Office Building, Room A (1600 5th Street, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22902)
Cost: $25 (free for Local Food Hub Partner Producers)
Questions: [email protected]

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Secondly, I am planning a workshop with Cindy Connor, author of Grow a Sustainable Diet and Ira Wallace, author of the Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. It’s at Lynchburg College, in SW Virginia, on Saturday February 15. I’ll give more details once we have them sorted out.

Cindy has written a blog post about Ira Wallace’s new book, Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. See http://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/

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The weather here has turned wintry. We are bracing for the big ice storm expected Saturday night and Sunday, likely followed by power outages, during which the electric lines-people struggle to restore power over a big area, as this storm looks (on the radar) like it covers a big swath. Here’s the regional radar from Weather Underground this afternoon

Weather Underground regional radar for December 7 2013
Weather Underground regional radar for December 7 2013

In case you couldn’t tell from my slack blogging recently, I’ve been on vacation. My fellow communard, Ezra Freeman, has been tracking the weather here, and reported in his blog on a low of 10F on Saturday 23 November. The previous low had been 18F on November 13, reported to me by Ken Bezilla at Acorn Community and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Here are some seasonal photos of our gardens taken by Ezra:

East Garden with frost. Credit Ezra Freeman
East Garden with frost. Credit Ezra Freeman
Raised beds November 2013 Credit Ezra freeman
Raised beds November 2013
Credit Ezra Freeman
Ice on the pond. Credit Ezra Freeman
Ice on the pond.
Credit Ezra Freeman
Blackberry leaf with frost. Credit Ezra Freeman
Blackberry leaf with frost.
Credit Ezra Freeman

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Meanwhile, our garden work turns towards planning for next year. We have done an inventory of our remaining seeds and decided what to keep and what to throw out. Opinions vary a bit about how many years seeds of different vegetables are good for. The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. You can make your own decisions, weighing up the information supplied, your knowledge of how carefully you stored the seeds, the information on each packet about percentage germination when you bought it, and the economic importance to you of that particular crop. If you always transplant lettuce, as I do, you can risk one of your four varieties in that sowing coming up poorly, and just plant out more of the other three if it fails. Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook. Frank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

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

Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the even rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera

2 years: Corn, Peas and Beans of all kinds, Onions, Chives, Okra, Dandelion, Martynia,

3 years: Carrots, Leeks, Asparagus, Turnips, Rutabagas

4 years: Spinach, Peppers, Chard, Pumpkins, Squash, Watermelons, Basil, Artichokes and Cardoons

5 years: most Brassicas, Beets, Tomatoes, Eggplant, Cucumbers, Muskmelons, Celery, Celeriac, Lettuce, Endive, Chicory

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

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We are working towards ordering seeds. The catalogs are starting to appear in my mail box. The early bird catches the preferred varieties! The main companies we order from are Fedco, Johnny’s and of course, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We like SESE for regionally adapted varieties, Fedco for great prices on bulk sizes, and Johnny’s for some varieties we really like that aren’t available from the other two. If you are ordering from Fedco and don’t yet have my book, they are now selling it at a very decent price (cheaper than signed copies direct from me). If you need to economize, but don’t want to buy from the big online company that doesn’t pay its workers much, try Fedco, who are a co-operative.