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 (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.
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.
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!
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:
- We are extra motivated and get all the broccoli and cabbage beds and garlic weeded in a timely way.
- We leave bare soil around the garlic which improves airflow and helps the garlic dry down ready for harvest at the beginning of June.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- Check and record the germination of the previous two weeks’ sowings. (Perfect = one plant per inch)
- 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.).
- 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)
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.