Cooking Greens in May

Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

My recent blogpost Hoophouse Greens Clearance is a good lead-in to this topic. This is the first of a planned monthly series of posts about seasonal cooking greens. I have been justly criticized for not reminding readers that these dates are for our location in central Virginia. Those living in the rest of the world can choose later or earlier dates as appropriate. Hopefully you will be able to set a pattern, where you add or subtract a certain number of weeks. For example if you are in a colder area, you will generally plant later between December and June and plant earlier after that, to fit the length of daylight and the temperature.

Cooking Greens to Plant in Central Virginia in May

Very early May is our last chance to finish transplanting gap fillers to replace casualties in spring broccoli and cabbage. It’s too late for us to transplant any other cooking greens in May (except Swiss chard and special heat tolerant crops), as the weather is already heating up and brassicas will bolt.

We plant our chard out around April 29–May 6, at 3–4 weeks of age. We transplant into beds already mulched with rolled out bales of spoiled hay, making “nests” through the hay down to soil level, at 12″ (30 cm) spacing. The plants will grow large, so we put only two rows in a 4′ (120 cm) bed with 1′ (30–cm) paths. The mulch controls weeds and keeps the soil cooler and damper through the summer.

Spinach beet, also known as perpetual spinach, is by far the closest to real spinach in appearance and flavor. It is a kind of chard with narrow green stems and plentiful glossy green leaves, which are generally smaller than other chard leaves. It is a trouble-free, adaptable crop, and deserves to be much better known.

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa, Tetragonia tetragonioides) is salt tolerant and will even grow in sand. It is a sprawling bushy plant with small, fleshy, triangular leaves. Thin to at least six inches (15 cm) apart. It is very slow to germinate and needs hot weather to really get going. Regular trimming encourages lush growth. Scissors can be used to harvest the shoot tips. If it seeds, you’ll get lots of plants the following year. The flavor is very mild — I rate this one as not particularly like spinach.

Malabar Spinach, a summer green leafy crop.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Malabar spinach (Basella alba, Basella rubra) can be sown in early May. It’s a vining plant with crinkled heart-shaped leaves on green or red vines. A tropical plant from Asia and Africa, it needs tall trellising and will reward you with its attractive appearance. Germination can be erratic, so don’t give up too soon. Soaking the seed in warm water before sowing may help.

Thin to at least 6″ (15 cm) apart and, to promote a more branched plant, pinch out the central shoot after the second set of leaves. It is little troubled by pests and will produce an abundance of moderately small leaves, looking like real spinach, two months from sowing. Individual leaves may be harvested as needed. The taste is slightly seaweedy (it’s also known as “land kelp”) and the texture is somewhat mucilaginous in the way that okra is. It can be eaten raw if you like the chewy texture.

Melokhia (Corchorus olitorius) is an Arabic summer cooking green which grows quickly to a height of three feet (one meter) in hot weather. Only the small leaves are cooked and eaten. Jute fiber is extracted from the mature plants. Seed is available from Sandhill Preservation.

See the chapter Other Greens: Chard and Other Summer Cooking Greens in Sustainable Market Farming for more about other chard relatives and amaranths.

Bolting mustard greens on May 3.
Photo Pam Dawling

Outdoor Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

As the outdoor cooking greens prepare to bolt, we clear the beds of spinach, senposai, mustard greens, collards and kale, probably in that order. Over-wintered spinach bolts sooner than spring-planted spinach.

Daylight length of more than 14 hours triggers bolting in spinach. All of us, wherever we are, have 12 hours of daylight at the spring equinox and the fall equinox, and less than that from fall to spring. So, provided temperatures are in the right range, we have over 6 months of suitable spinach growing conditions. Hot weather will accelerate bolting once the daylight trigger has been reached, as will overcrowding (with other spinach or with weeds) and under-watering. The exact temperature that triggers bolting varies between varieties. Here we reach 14 hours of daylight on May 8, and spinach is definitely a lost cause after that date.

Broccoli, cabbage and chard harvests start here this month. Broccoli is generally available 5/20 – 6/30; cabbage 5/25 – 7/15, with some put into storage. Our outdoor chard is ready from 5/25 into the winter. We could have chard earlier, but we prefer spinach and kale while we can have those in spring.

Beet greens and turnip greens can be harvested all month outdoors. This fits in well with thinning the plants out to 3″ (7.5 cm) or more apart.

Young turnips (with flea beetles!) in need of thinning for cooking greens.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

As I said in my Hoophouse Greens Clearance post, the indoor greens have to concede space to the tender warm weather plants. Bulls Blood Beet Greens will be bolting, as will the chard, frilly mustards and spinach. Clear them away, and look outside instead!

Other Tasks with Cooking Greens here in May

In mid-May, we weed our broccoli, having packed away the rowcovers, or moved them on to more tender plants. I always prefer moving rowcovers and netting direct from one bed to another, rather than rolling tightly and storing it, just to unpack it again soon after!

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

After weeding the broccoli and cabbage beds, which in our rotation are right beside the over-wintered garlic, in the same plot, we weed the garlic. Then we gather up the mulch and weeds and move them from the garlic to the weeded brassica beds. This achieves three things:

  1. We are extra motivated and get all the broccoli and cabbage beds and garlic weeded in a timely way.
  2. We leave bare soil around the garlic which improves airflow and helps the garlic dry down ready for harvest at the beginning of June.
  3. The brassica beds receive a topping up of mulch, which helps smother weeds and keeps the brassica plants cooler as we go into hotter weather. This will extend the harvest period and reduce the likelihood of the broccoli becoming bitter.

Special Cooking Greens Topic for May in Central Virginia: Planning Fall Brassicas

At Twin Oaks we need to start sowing our fall brassicas (especially the broccoli and cabbage) in the middle of June. Rather than have to attend to flats of starts in the greenhouse, we use outdoor nursery seed beds and do bare-root transplanting.

To determine when to sow for fall plantings, start with your average first frost date, then subtract the number of days from seeding to transplant (21–28), the number of days from transplanting to harvest for that variety (given in the catalog description), the length of harvest period (we harvest broccoli for 35 days minimum) and another 14 days for the slowing rate of plant growth in fall compared to spring.

Our rough formula for all transplanted fall brassicas is to sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12’–15′ (3.6–4.6 m) of crop row, aiming for three seeds per inch (about 1 cm apart). This means sowing 36 seeds for 10 plants that will be grown on 18″ (46 cm) spacing. And we do that twice (72 seeds for 10 plants!), two sowings a week apart, to ensure we have enough plants of the right size.

Fall brassica nursery seedbed with insect netting.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We consult our maps and see how much space we have for fall broccoli and cabbage, how many raised beds of Asian greens and collards we want, and so on. (We direct sow kale in raised beds in early August). We will, of course, have initially planned this in the winter, before ordering seeds, but sometimes plans change!) Once we have decided how many plants of each variety and each crop we want, we can plan our seed sowing. We make a spreadsheet of what we need to sow each week, and maps of the seed beds. Our sowings are complex, so we make sure to label everything clearly. Here are our instructions:

  1. On the same day of each week, sow, label, water, hoop and ProtekNet the “Feet Plan” for that week.  Allow 3 hours.  Make a map.
  2. Check and record the germination of the previous two weeks’ sowings. (Perfect = one plant per inch)
  3.  In a fresh row, sow top-ups for varieties with a germination less than 80%. Enter the info in the column for the current week. Example: If Arcadia week 2 germination = 12′ (at 1/inch) visible in week 4, sow 10′ in the week 4 bed to make up to the 22′ needed, and write 10′ in the Arcadia row in the week 4 column. ( There are no sowings in weeks 5-8 except resows and kale beds.).
  4. Transplant at 3-4 weeks old:

In Week 4 (7/8-7/14): Transplant week 1 cabbage.

In Week 5 (7/15-7/21): Transplant week 2 cabbage, broccoli, , any  week 2 resows.

In Week 6 (7/22-7/28): Transplant week 3 cabbage, broccoli, senposai, Yukina Savoy; and any week 3 resows.

In Week 7 (7/29-8/4): Transplant week 4 senposai, Yukina Savoy, collards and resows.   Also fill gaps in week 4 transplantings (= week 1 sowings)

In Weeks 8 & 9 (8/5-8/19): Transplant week 5 collards anything you didn’t keep up with, and replacements in weeks 5 and 6 transplantings (weeks 2 & 3 sowings)

Fall broccoli rows.
Photo Kati Falger

Below you can see our seedbed maps, with four rows per bed, and handy 5 ft measurements.

Next we make a fall brassica transplanting map, or field map, to show where we intend the various varieties to grow. I’ll tell you more about that in June.

 

Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Swiss Chard Photo Small Farm Central
Swiss Chard
Photo by Small Farm Central

You might think I wrote a typo for crop insurance, but no. There are some 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.

Malabr spinach Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Malabar spinach
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This 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-podded asparagus bean Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Purple-podded asparagus bean
Photo by 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 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
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.

Tokyo bekana Photo by Johnnys Seeds
Tokyo bekana
Photo by Johnnys Seeds

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!

And for leafy cooking greens, senposai does well in spring and fall outdoors, and in our hoophouse in the

Senposai. Photo by Kathryn Simmons
Senposai.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

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. This fall, though, we found its Achilles Heel – the senposai became an unplanned trap crop for 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. But we lost the senposai.

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.

Transplanting season!

Cow Horn okra seedlings in a WInstrip 50 cell flat in our greenhouse in April. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Cow Horn okra seedlings in a WInstrip 50 cell flat in our greenhouse in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is our busiest time of year for transplanting. We’re beyond frosts, and we have thousands of warm weather plants to get in the ground. Sure, we were busy in spring and will be again in July with cabbage and broccoli. But this time of year the transplanting includes many different crops, and involves setting out drip systems and biodegradable plastic mulch as well.

Growing sweet potato slips, using an old fridge as an insulated chamber. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Growing sweet potato slips, using an old fridge as an insulated chamber.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We’re part way through setting out sweet potatoes. We are using ridges, drip irrigation and biodegradable plastic mulch. We grew all our own sweet potato slips, and this allows us to spread out our planting over several days. We used to mail-order slips, and when they arrived we always had to scramble to get them in the ground, so they could recover from their travel stress.

 

What we're looking forward to - Malabar spinach. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
What we’re looking forward to – Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

 

At the beginning of May we planted out Redventure celery, Cow Horn okra, and Malabar spinach, a new trial crop for us. A different warm weather cooking green.

Young tomato plants with their first round of string-weaving. Photo Wren Vile
Young tomato plants with their first round of string-weaving.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve already planted out slicing and cherry tomatoes.We’ve got our big planting of Roma paste tomatoes in, and our peppers. They’re also on drip irrigation and biodegradable plastic. I find it helpful to take a copy of the crop map for each garden and make a Drip Irrigation Map, using a waterproof red pen to draw in each run of drip tape and header pipe. This helps me identify which pieces of header pipe I can reuse and how many lengths of drip tape to bring from the barn. We try hard to make storing and reusing drip irrigation supplies easy, using shuttles to store tape and coiling and labeling the header pipe.

We haven’t planted out our eggplant yet. We’re also behind with cantaloupes and watermelons, and a bit behind with our weekly planting of 120 lettuces.

We like to have lettuce all year, so I have experimented, planned and tweaked until we can usually get a continuous supply. In winter we have leaf lettuce and baby salad mix from the hoophouse. From mid April we aim to have lettuce heads from outdoors. We reckon on growing 120 lettuce/week for 100 people. This inevitably involves some losses and wastage, as we don’t control the weather or the appetites of our diners!

This year we made a late start on harvesting the outdoor lettuce as it was growing slowly and we still had good supplies in the hoophouse. Now we have started outdoor harvests and suddenly have lots ready at once. So it goes! generally we sow 4 varieties each time, to spread the risk and increase the diversity. Our first sowing was 1/17, transplanted 3/31. The Hyper Red Wave wasn’t a good choice – it has bolted and become bitter. Reliable old  Salad Bowl is holding well, and Bronze Arrow looks good. The second sowing, 1/31, is mostly ready, and some of the third also (2/14). I see our labeling wasn’t so good this spring, but the Outredgeous looks surprisingly good for May and there’s a lovely green Bibb too.

Bronze Arrow lettuce. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Bronze Arrow lettuce.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

 

Laura Lengnick, Carol Deppe, Growing for Market April issue

51qEC5xzBVLImage-contributor-s_avatarHere’s a new book I’m really looking forward to reading: Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. $19.95 from New Society Publishers.

Like many farmers, I’ve been struggling not to get despondent about erratic and extreme weather, especially in the past few years. I worry about how and if we are going to be able to adapt to continue producing good food despite extreme heat, cold, drought and deluge. I don’t want to slide into catastrophic thinking about plagues of new pests and diseases. Obviously we’ll need to make changes to how and when we plant and harvest – old-timey calendars don’t work any more.

I’m already there with the need for good record-keeping (to figure out what works best); eating and supplying local food (to reduce transportation fuel use and to get the freshest food); and doing my personal best not to make climate change worse. And I need help in understanding how to be more resilient and use the options I have. And it’s definitely time to start this!

I went to a workshop given by Laura Lengnick at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference in 2012: Managing a Changing Climate:A Farm Vulnerability Assessment and I was encouraged by her grasp of both the science and of farming. Her book is one of three being launched by New Society at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC

Resilient Gardener_SmallResilience is a concept familiar to another author, Carol Deppe, whose new book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening will, sooner or later, get a review by me on this site. I enjoyed her earlier book, The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. That book focuses on staple crops for survival: potatoes, corn, dry beans, squash and eggs. Her new book includes other crops which make our lives richer and worth gardening for: tomatoes, peas, green beans, summer squash. I just read an interesting interview with Carol Deppe from Margaret Roach who blogs as A Way to Garden, and makes radio podcasts such as this interview.
GFM-April2015-cover-300pxAnd yet more reading! The April issue of Growing for Market is out. I’ve written the first of a pair of articles on hot weather greens. This one is about greens mostly cooked and eaten. next month my article will be about greens mostly eaten as salads. I know there is a lot of overlap, but I had to draw a line somewhere! This month’s article includes chard, Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, beet greens, Egyptian spinach, leaf amaranths, Aztec Spinach, Water Spinach, sweet potato leaves, squash leaves and shoots, crowder pea shoots and leaves and edible celosia. No need to go short of leafy greens, no matter how hot it gets!
Another article in this issue is about pesticide drift contamination, written by Joanna and Eric Reuter, whose fascinating blog I love to follow on their website Chert Hollow Farm. Their blog has a 3-part series of posts about their own experience of being contaminated by a neighbor. Their article tells their own story more briefly and also that of Terra Bella farm, an hour from them.
Jean-Martin Fortier has a great article on Six strategies to prevent weeds. We need them all! (Of course, we are already using some of them.) Raymond Cloyd from Kansas State University has written a timely article about the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a newly emerging pest of fruit, especially brambles. Gretel Adams, in her regular column on flower-growing, advises planting bulbs quickly and often. And Lynn Byczynski reports on what the ag census says about local food. Having the report read carefully and summarized for us is a great service.