Workhorse Crops for August

Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Workhorse Crops for August

I’m back again with my series of 14 Workhorse Crops (including two pairs) to focus on monthly until April 2022: These are crops that we can rely on under a wide range of conditions. Some Workhorse Crops are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops”, some are especially profitable (for those growing for market), and watermelons are more of a circus pony than a workhorse!

I hope this series will help you become more efficient, productive and profitable (if selling) as your lives resettle. Maybe you are not at home as much as last year, but you’ve learned to deeply appreciate growing your own food.  So you need to choose less time-consuming crops and growing methods. You can use the search box to find previous month’s entries, such as July.

Workhorse Crops to Plant in August

Young Farao cabbage, a good fast-growing variety.
Photo Pam Dawling

In August here in central Virginia, the heat is still oppressive, but the day-length is definitely getting shorter. We and our crops have a longer night in which to recover for the next hot day. I remember the year I realized we just had to do some of our broccoli transplanting in the late afternoons, because the evenings no longer held enough daylight! Since those days we have reduced the size of our fall broccoli planting!

This month we will really need to plan for our fall and winter garden and execute our plan. There’s no making up for lost time in the fall! As the days get shorter and the temperatures (thankfully) start to drop, plants take longer to mature. A delay of a day or two in sowing leads to a delay of a week or two (or more) in the start of the harvest. Keep records and try several dates, especially if this is your first year, so you can fine tune your plan next year.

In August we can plant 8 of our 14 Workhorse crops in central Virginia.

Beans, zucchini and summer squash

These warm-weather crops get their absolute last chance before the season gets too cold. We sow our last bush green beans 8/1-8/3, and zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers by 8/5 at the latest. If you are in a colder climate than ours, with a first frost earlier than our October 14 average, your last sowings of beans, zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers were in July. It’s too late for us to sow edamame or sweet corn. More on Last Chance Sowings in the Special Topic at the end.

Fall carrots.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Carrots

We also reach our Last Chance for carrots for the year. We usually make a huge sowing of carrots on August 4, as our storage crop for the winter. We need 1500 pounds of carrots to feed us through the whole winter (30 bags). We sow 4000 row feet (1220 m), usually on temporary beds where we grew garlic until June, followed by a round or two of buckwheat cover crop before preparing the beds for the carrots. It really pays with carrots to reduce the weed level. We mulch our garlic and weed it every month from February until we remove the mulch when we see scapes in mid-May. Few weeds grow in the three weeks before we harvest. Buckwheat is a fast growing summer cover crop that is a modest size and easy to manage. It flowers about 4 weeks after sowing, and the flowers attract many beneficial insects.

After sowing the carrots with our trusty EarthWay seeder, we keep the soil damp by nightly watering until we see the red hooped stems of our indicator beet seedlings emerging. Then we know it’s time to flameweed. It’s usually the fourth day after sowing the carrots. This dispatches any new weeds thinking of emerging. As soon as we can see well enough to do so, we hoe between the rows with our scuffle hoes (stirrup hoes). Once the carrots are 1” (2.5 cm) tall, we hand weed, cultivate with claws (to kill weeds that haven’t even emerged yet) and thin to 1” (2.5 cm). Later we thin to 3” (7.5 cm) and weed again. That’s a September task.

Cabbage and Collards:

For the cool weather greens we are in our second season for the year. August is too late for us to start broccoli, collards or cabbage. In July and August we transplant the starts we sowed in June and July. At this time of year, we aim to transplant brassicas at four true leaves (3-4 weeks after sowing). In hot weather, use younger transplants than you would in spring, because larger plants wilt from high transpiration losses. If we find ourselves transplanting bigger plants, we remove a couple of the older leaves to reduce these losses.

To avoid flea beetles and harlequin bugs, we cover the nursery seedbeds until we transplant, and then cover the transplants for four weeks, until the plants are big enough to survive bug bites. Nets are better than rowcover in hot weather, as airflow is better and heating is less. This might require a bit of re-planning to get best value from the netting. For example – instead of planting the rows an equal distance apart, plant two rows closer than before, and then have wider aisles. One width of netting can cover two rows of brassicas, each with their own (offset) hoops.

Transplant seedlings under insect netting outdoors.
Photo Pam Dawling

Dubois Agrinovation has a range of ProtekNet Insect Exclusion Netting, made of clear high-density knitted polyamide (lighter weights), polypropylene/olefin (mid-weight) or polyethylene (heavy weights), with UV resistance. Be sure to buy the size mesh that keeps out the pest you are guarding against. See the Dimensions and Specifications tab on their website. We have bought the 0.0335″ x 0.0335″ (0.85 mm x 0.85 mm) mesh (against harlequin bugs) and the 0.0138″ x 0.0138″ (0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) mesh against flea beetles. Pieces can be sewn together, or Dubois will join them with zippers. See the Details tab for the insects excluded by each particular mesh. Light transmission is 88-93%. Ours have lasted many years, longer than rowcover. Use hoops to hold the mesh above the plants so insects can’t lay eggs through the holes. Purple Mountain Organics sell the whole range in full rolls, and the 25 g in 6.9’ x 33’. Johnny’s Seeds sells 6.9’ x 328’ 25 g “Thrips Net”. Compare shipping charges as well as netting price.

Two weeks after transplanting, we till or wheelhoe between the rows and hoe around the plants, removing the minimum amount of netting at any one time that we have to. Four weeks after transplanting, we remove the netting entirely, and hoe and till again. This time we undersow with a mix of clovers to be a long-term cover crop.

Kale:

We sow 6 beds of kale, two every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, and if we need to resow, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. We focus our attention on the two newly sown beds, watering daily as needed, until the seedlings emerge.

We want a lot of kale, and there isn’t time to transplant it all. We grow Vates dwarf Scotch curled, the most cold-hardy variety I’ve found. It isn’t huge – we plant 4 rows per bed 10″ (25 cm) apart. We’re looking at 6x4x90 plants.

We carefully thin, leaving one plant every foot (30 cm). Often we’ll get patchy emergence and we use the carefully dug thinnings to fill gaps and to plant other beds, at the same plant spacing. Our mixed direct-sow/transplant method allows for the fact of patchy germination, and requires less watering than if direct sowing it all at once. If your climate is a colder zone than ours, you would start sowing kale in July. We cover the beds with Proteknet.

Kale make some growth whenever the temperature is above about 40°F (5°C), which happens in our winters on many days, making this a valuable winter crop.

ProtekNet over kale transplants in August.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Chard: Swiss chard can be sown here in July or August, for a good fall harvest, with the option of overwintering under rowcover. It grows small leaves after only 35 days, and full-size leaves after 50 days. Chard is not eaten by flea beetles, and does not have problems germinating in hot weather like spinach does. Chard is our poster-child insurance crop! So easy! So productive!

Workhorse Crops to Harvest in August

Eleven of our 14 workhorse crops can be harvested in August!

Beans­ can be harvested here from late June until the first frost (or later if we cover the beds with rowcover when a frost threatens).

Cabbage planted in the spring is ready here from late May until mid-July, or a little later if we planted late-maturing varieties. When I was a new gardener I thought “early varieties” were to be planted early, and “late varieties” to be planted later. It would be clearer if they were labeled “fast” and “slow”! For the second half of the year, late varieties need to be sown earlier than early varieties to get a harvestable crop before it gets too cold. Be sure to check and compare the days to maturity numbers for the varieties you are growing.

We store enough spring cabbage to feed us until we start harvesting fall cabbage.  It’s about a 50lb (25 k) bag a week. Fall planted cabbage won’t be ready until September 25.

Danvers Half Long carrot, a good workhorse variety!
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Carrots: After May we hope not to need to sow more carrots until the beginning of August, because carrots grown in hot weather don’t taste sweet and can even be soapy. But home-grown hot weather carrots are still better than industrial carrots from thousands of miles away. This year we finished harvesting our spring carrots in July and stored them in the walk-in cooler.

If we have not grown enough carrots in the spring, we sow in June, or July if we must. When we do sow in June and July, those carrots are ready about 2-3 months after sowing (less time in warm weather, longer as the weather starts to cool in the fall)

Chard can be harvested whenever you want some. Just snap or cut off some outer leaves and stand them in a bucket with a little water (or if your cooler isn’t as big as ours, put them in a loose plastic bag in your fridge) until you cook them. For sustainable harvesting levels, we use our standard leafy green mnemonic “8 for later” meaning that we make sure to leave at least eight of the inner leaves on each plant, as we harvest the outer leaves. With chard, we can take a couple more than this, but we don’t want to exhaust our workhorses!

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

Chard is biennial, and will not bolt the first year (unless stressed by lack of water).  Red chards bolt more easily than the green ones, presumably red crops are a bit stressed already, as they are short of chlorophyll, compared to the green ones, making photosynthesis harder work.

To overwinter chard in our climate, we cover the bed with rowcover on hoops. We can continue to make harvests into early winter. The mulch and rowcover help keep warmth in the soil, which keeps the crop growing.

Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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). If you want to overwinter chard in a climate colder than those temperatures, you can make a heavy harvest just before the weather turns seriously cold. This leaves the growing points of the plants alive. Cover the whole bed with thick straw or hay and wait for spring.

Fordhook Giant is a very reliable summer leafy green.
Photo Pam Dawling

Potatoes, if planted in April would be harvested in August here. We can plant potatoes between mid-March and mid-June, leading to harvests in July-October. It’s as important not to leave potatoes baking in the sun as it is to protect them from frost, both when planting and when harvesting. Read more about potato harvest here.

Sweet Corn harvest is well underway. Usually we start sowing as early as possible and hope to start harvesting on 4th July. Sweet corn will be ready to harvest about three weeks after the first silks appear. This year we are later, but it’s just as delicious. We harvest 3 days a week, which gives us a nice amount from our 1050-1325 ft (320-400 m) plantings to feed our community. Some growers say you should harvest daily, but we find every other day is often enough. We are able to rush our sweet corn straight to the cooler, and it doesn’t have to travel after that, so we enjoy very fresh corn. Be sure to shade your corn after harvest and get it cooled as soon as possible, as the flavor deteriorates if it sits around.

Silver Queen nearly ready to pick
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Determining sweet corn maturity can be hard for new growers. Corn is ready when the silks become brown and dry. If the silks are not brown, just walk on by! If they are brown, and the ears are plump and filled to the end with kernels, take a closer look. Mature ears stand away from the stalks. This is called “flagging”. If you are still unsure, and don’t want to make too many mistakes, slit the husks at the side of the ear with your thumb nails and look at the kernels. (Don’t puncture the husks on the top of the ear as the dew and a million tiny beetles will get in and make a mess.) They should be a bit squarish and tight packed, not round and pearly with spaces between them. An opaque, milky juice will seep out of punctured kernels. If your sample ear wasn’t ready, push the husks closed over the cur and wait a few days.

Jubilee tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Tomatoes are ripening fast outdoors now. Wait for the leaves to dry from rain or dew, before touching the plants, to minimize the spread of fungal diseases. Lightly press the bottom of the tomato to make sure it is soft enough to be fully ripe. Snap the tomato off at the knuckle, so that the plant gets the signal the fruit has gone, and will ripen more. We pop off the green calyx and set the tomatoes in plastic crates that fit two or three layers of fruit. It’s always tempting to include cracked ones, but they quickly turn nasty, so only do that if you are going to sort them promptly and process the damaged ones.

Watermelon harvest is starting. Determining ripeness is both art and science, and it’s worth getting good at it, as harvested watermelons don’t ripen further after harvest. An unripe watermelon is a sad waste.

Crimson Sweet watermelon
Photo Nina Gentle

The first step is to look at your sowing date and the days to maturity for the variety you’re growing. If it’s too soon for them to be ready, don’t tempt yourself by looking! If the dates are auspicious, the next step is to look at a big melon and find the curly little tendril that grows from the vine where the melon is attached (but on the opposite side of the vine). It must be brown and dry. If not, leave the melon untouched!

If it is brown, you can slap the melon and listen. The sound should be like thumping your chest, not your head or your belly! If that seems to indicate ripeness, we have one last check, that works for Crimson Sweet. I’m not completely sure it works for all varieties, although I think it should. Stand astride the melon, bend and put your flat hands, heel to heel, over the width of the melon. Pause and ensure silence (if you have coworkers) and then press down firmly with quite a bit of weight. If the melon is ripe, you will hear and feel a scrunch, as the ripe watermelon flesh splits inside the melon. Then you know you have a really good one. Rural legend says this test only works once, so don’t practice, just do it for real!

Cut the melon stem and gently lift and set the melon down in the cart, truck or at the side of the patch. I know some crews throw the melons from one person to another, but Crimson Sweets are too big, in my opinion.

Note that these rules apply to watermelons, not to any other type of melon.

Golden Glory zucchini.
Photo Pam Dawling

Zucchini and summer squash in our climate need harvesting every day, if we are going to avoid blimps. Summer squash can be twisted off the plants, but zucchini need to be cut. The hairs on the leaves, combined with sweat, can cause unpleasant itchiness. Wear long sleeves or make special sleeves for this job that are not attached to any particular shirt. Make a casing and insert elastic around the top edge (and the bottom, if there are no cuffs). These sleeves can be bought, but everyone probably has an old shirt and could make their own.

We harvest every day to the fall frost (or beyond if we remember to cover that last planting with rowcover on chilly nights.).

From storage: spring cabbage, carrots and potatoes.

Workhorse Crops Special Topics for August:

Newly emerged beans (in rather dry soil).
Photo Pam Dawling

Formula to Calculate Last Planting Date for Warm Weather Crops

To calculate the last worthwhile sowing date for warm weather crops, add the number of days to maturity and the length of your desired harvest period, and subtract this number from your average first frost date. Using yellow squash as an example:

  • Number of days from seeding to harvest                                           50
  • Desired length of the harvest period                                                    21
  • 14 days to allow for the slowing rate of growth in the fall           14
  • 14 days to allow for an early frost (but we have rowcover)           0
  • Days before the first frost = total of these                                        = 85
  • Last date for sowing, with October 14 first frost date                  = July 21

But by throwing rowcover over the last planting during cold spells, we effectively extend the growing season by 2 weeks, and we can sow our last planting of squash on Aug 5.

Morris Heading Collards.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Last Chance Sowings: Fast Fall Crops for When Time is Short

Some crops mature in 60 days or less. These are mostly greens and fast-growing root vegetables. They are useful to fill space and time before you plant winter cover crops.

Ready in 30–35 days:

  • arugula, frilly mustards, kale, radishes.
  • some Asian greens: Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, Tokyo Bekana.
  • spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories), winter purslane.

Ready in 35–45 days:

  • corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley, chervil
  • More Asian greens: Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy

Ready in 45–60 days:

  • beets, Napa cabbage, small cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield), collards, kohlrabi, pak choy, turnips

Use the chart below to figure out your last chance to sow crops with various days to maturity

Sowing dates for fall crops with various days to maturity

Days to   For harvest For harvest For harvest
Maturity   mid-Sept- late Sept- from  
    mid Oct mid-Oct mid-Oct
30d   27-Jul 16-Aug 31-Aug
40d   17-Jul 6-Aug 21-Aug
50d   7-Jul 27-Jul 11-Aug
60d   27-Jun 17-Jul 1-Aug
70d   17-Jun 7-Jul 22-Jul

For example, Early Purple Vienna Kohlrabi takes only 60 days from sowing to harvest in spring. Allow for the slowing rate of growth in fall (unless you will use rowcover). Kohlrabi is hardy to maybe 15°F (-9.4°C). When is it likely to get that cold? Not before the beginning of November here, so counting back 31 days in October, plus 30 in September, plus 31 in August – that’s 92 days already, more than enough. We could sow kohlrabi in early August and get a crop at the end of October.

A September sowing of kohlrabi. Too late for roots, we ate the greens.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Planting fall crops, receiving rain

Young turnip and radish plants. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Young turnip and radish plants.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

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

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

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

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

Warm weather crops

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

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

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

+ Average number of days of harvest period

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

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

______

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

 

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

Cool weather spring and fall crops

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

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

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

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

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

Sowing dates for crops with various days to maturity

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

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

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

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

Cold-hardy crops to grow over winter

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