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

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.