Sorry for the delay in posting this. Apparently a driver hit an all-important cable and the whole county is without internet. Rural living can’t be beat!
Here we are in March. Nothing new to harvest outdoors yet, although the garlic scallions are getting close. But the hoophouse is serving us well. Every day we harvest 5 or 10 gallons of salad mix and either some cooking greens, radishes or scallions. The photo above is a new delight: Pink Stemmed Mizuna from Osborne Seeds
We’ve finished the hoophouse turnips, and are now making serious headway on the kale. We grow both Red Russian and White Russian kales.
We use orange flags to denote where to harvest next, as we have a large hoophouse (30 x 96 ft) and many different crops. It is often obvious as we get closer. Here’s three different ways we are harvesting right now:
As you can see we harvest baby lettuce mix by cropping it about an inch above the soil. I think this is the third cutting of this patch. I like to make our salad mixes about one third lettuce, one third brassicas of some kind and one third spinach. The brassica mix below is now bolting, so I pulled it up as I harvested. All brassica flowers are edible, and the buds are just like tiny broccoli.
The spinach I’m harvesting today is our third sowing, and we are cutting outer leaves and chopping them into the salad mix.
For those wondering what the silver stuff is: these three crops are all in our narrow north edge bed. We have 24″ (60cm) bubblefoil insulation stapled onto the hipboard. It reflects back both light (in short supply low on the north wall) and heat.
In the greenhouse we have reached Peak Broccoli Flats season. We have 16 flats for our first planting in the coldframe, 16 of the second and four of the (backup plan) third sowing in the greenhouse.
We use open wood flats for these kinds of hardy seedlings. We sow 4 rows into 12 x 24 x 3″ flats and then spot out into 12 x 24 x 4″ flats (40 plants each) to grow to final transplant size.
In April, sadly, our last mizuna and ferny mustards will come to an end. In our hoophouse we do three plantings of these frilly leaved greens, which we use for salads all winter and early spring.
Mizuna (also known as kyona and shui cai) is a Brassica rapa var. japonica, meaning it’s in the turnip family. The other frilly mustards, such as Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Red Rain are Chinese Mustards, B. juncea. We tend to treat them as if they are all types of mizuna. True mizuna is available in green or purple (but Ruby Streaks and Scarlet Frills mustards are much better colors than Purple Mizuna.)
All are very easy to grow, can be transplanted or direct-sown, and tolerate cold wet soil. They are ready to be harvested for baby salads only 21 days after sowing in the fall (longer in winter). They grow to maturity in 40 days. They are easy-going vegetables, fairly heat tolerant (well, warm tolerant) and cold-tolerant to 25°F (-4°C). All regrow vigorously after cutting. The ferny leaves add color and loft in salad mixes, as well as an attractive leaf shape.
Mizuna is very mild-flavored. The ferny mustards vary in pungency, but most only become markedly spicy when they start bolting.
Like all Asian greens, they need similar care to other brassicas, doing best in very fertile soils. They are shallow-rooted – pay extra attention to providing enough water during hot weather to prevent bitter flavors and excess pungency, especially with the B. juncea ones. Provide 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week, 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather.
Do close monitoring of pests, which can build up large populations during the summer. Growing these over the winter, as we do, we have not had many pest problems. Flea beetles sometimes, once the weather starts to warm.
Our mizuna schedule
On September 24 we sow these little crops in our outdoor nursery seedbed, which is covered with insect netting on hoops. We sow 7.5′, with roughly equal amounts of Green Mizuna, Golden Frills, and Ruby Streaks or Scarlet Frills. Red Rain is another we like. We are aiming for about 75 transplants on October 20. We transplant them 8″ apart with 6 rows in a 4′ bed. This takes 8′ length of a bed. This first planting will feed us from November 27 to January 25, with light harvests possible from November 5, and flowers and sprouting shoots as late as February 10.
Our second planting is direct sown in the hoophouse on November 9. We sow 6 rows about 6′ long (depending on available space). We thin these into salad mixes several times as they grow, increasing the spacing until they are about 6-10″ apart. After that we harvest by cutting off the larger leaves, sometimes individually, sometimes by “buzz-cutting” (snipping off leaves on one half of the plant an inch (25 mm) above the ground). Leaving half of the leaves growing seems to help the new leaves grow faster. Next time we harvest, we cut the other side. This planting provides harvests from February 26 to March 24 – just one month, although we get the thinnings from January 20, and the flowers and bolting shoots until mid-April.
A couple of years ago we added in a third planting, because we had some open space in the hoophouse. It follows the first Yukina Savoy. I wrote about some differences between the OP Yukina Savoy and the hybrid Koji. Perhaps Koji is less bolt-resistant than the OP. Late January brings it to an end.
We sow this third planting on February 1 and harvest it for a month from March 24 to April 23. This year this third planting is bolting April 15. (We have had a lot of temperature reversals this spring, which encourage bolting in brassicas.) Scarlet Frills and Golden Frills bolt later than Ruby Streaks and Green Mizuna. The timing of harvest fits perfectly with the second planting. We have sown it as late as March 3 and harvested April 10-April 30 (only 3 weeks when we sow that late).
Kitazawa Seeds sell 18 baby leaf mustards, including four red, purple or streaked mizunas. The other 14 are B. juncea, although a few don’t say. Most are frilly or ferny, a few merely wavy. Something for everyone.
Fedco lists theirs under “Asian greens”. Scroll down past Mizuna to Mustards to find several interesting gene pool offerings such as Pink Lettucy Mustard (Variations of greens with pink or purple pigments in midribs) for those seeking milder flavors; and the medium hot Purple Rapa Mix Gene Pool (sold out as I write this): Very vigorous tall serrated green leaves with purple veins and shading.
This is my twelfth and last Asian Greens of the Month series. You can see the others here:
Our hoophouse is bursting with winter greens. We just decided to hold back on harvesting our outdoor Vates kale and focus on the greens which are starting to bolt in the hoophouse. That includes the last turnips (Hakurei, Red Round and White Egg), Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frill and Golden Frills mustards. Big but happily not yet bolting are the spinach, Rainbow chard and Russian kales. A row of snap peas has emerged. Time to stake and string-weave them!
The lettuce situation is changing as we are eating up more of the overwintered leaf lettuce in the hoophouse. The lettuces in the greenhouse have all gone, to make way for the flats of seedlings. Plus, we needed the compost they were growing in, to fill the flats. More about lettuce in February next week.
We have also cleared the overwintered spinach in one of our coldframes, so we can deal with the voles and get them to relocate before we put flats of vulnerable seedlings out there. The voles eat the spinach plants from below, starting with the roots. We had one terrible spring when they moved on to eat the baby seedlings when we put those out there. After trial and error a couple of years ago, we now clear all the spinach from one frame, then line the cold frame with landscape fabric (going up the walls a way too), wait two weeks, then put the seedlings out on top of the landscape fabric. The voles by then have decided nothing tasty is going to appear there, so they move on.
Outdoors, we have just started transplanting new spinach. We have four beds to plant, a total of 3600 plants, so we have to keep moving on that! We are trialing several varieties again, as we did in the fall. We have the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring. Inevitably things are not going perfectly according to plan. Yesterday I forgot to follow the plan, and we started with Avon and Tyee at opposite ends of a bed we had planned to grow Reflect in! Anyway, we are labeling everything and hoping to learn which have best bolt resistance. Watch this space.
We have grown our spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. I wrote about bare root transplants in early January this year. You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.
For those relatively new to this blog but living in a similar climate zone, I want to point you to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. It includes a link for each month’s task list. I notice from the site stats that some of you are finding your way there, but now there are so many years’ worth of posts it’s perhaps harder to find. Happy browsing!
The post has lots of other interesting weather info too. Thanks Anne!
I remembered another of the items lost in the hacked post a few weeks ago: My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blogpost on Heat Tolerant Eggplant Varieties made it into their 30 Most Viewed blogposts for 2016. I’ll be writing up more about those varieties, linking the 2016 results to the weather each week (especially the temperatures) and adding what I learn in 2017.
I have written blogposts about growing lettuce in October, September, August, July, June and May. On October 25, I reported that we have covered our last outdoor bed of head and leaf lettuce, and an “emergency” bed of baby lettuce mix with double hoops and rowcover. Now, one month later, we are waiting out this cold snap (19F/-7C last night) until we get a mild spell to uncover those beds and finish harvesting them. We want to move the hoops and row covers to the outdoor spinach beds.
We are now harvesting only winter salad mixes, no more big bowls just of lettuce. We are using leaves from the outdoor lettuce, the outdoor lettuce mix, or leaves from the lettuce in the greenhouse, according to whatever is most ready. We chop the lettuce up as we harvest. I start with about half of the harvest bucket full of chopped lettuce. I notice that it takes 3 half-buckets of harvested greens to fill one bucket! The greens settle, and when mixed they take less space than they started out using.
Lettuce varieties we are currently harvesting include Green Forest, Hyper Red Wave, Merlot, new Red Fire, Oscarde, Panisse, Red Salad Bowl, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Salad Bowl, Star Fighter, Tango, Winter Marvel and Winter Wonderland. Last winter we grew some Osborne Multileafvarieties we liked a lot. This year I learned the hard way that pelleted seed doesn’t store well. As pointed out by Johnnys Seeds in their JSS Advantage Newsletter January 2012
“Some seeds, particularly lettuce, are primed before pelleting, which begins the metabolic process leading to germination. Because some of the early steps toward germination are completed before the seed is planted, germination happens more quickly. Germination times can be 50% faster with primed seed. When seeds germinate quickly, they may avoid potential problems including soil crusting, weeds, and soilborne diseases. On the down side, primed seed doesn’t have the same storage life as unprimed seeds, so we recommend that you purchase only enough for the current season.”
I like to mix three crop families in every salad mix: lettuce, spinach/chard/beet greens/brassicas. I also like to mix the colors and textures, so if most of that day’s lettuce leaves are green, I’ll be sure to get some Bulls Blood beet leaves or Ruby Streaks or Scarlet Frills. I don’t make the same mix every day, as variety is the spice of life!
I love the taste of spinach leaves in salad, and we have lots of spinach (outdoors, in cold frames and in the hoophouse). I love the colors of baby Bright Lights and Rainbow chard. I chop those stems small – not everyone likes a big hit of chard flavor in their salad. When I harvest Bulls Blood beets I snip the stems close to the base of the plant, line up a handful of leaves, then snip off the stems just below the leaf blades, before chopping the leaves into the bucket. These stems are kind of wiry, not good food. I don’t like to leave the leaf stems on the plant for two reasons. One is that the stems “cage in” the developing plant, reducing the access to sunlight and photosynthesis. The other is that the stems die back later and rot. Better to remove them right away. I do the same with spinach.
Last month I mentioned the brassica salad mix we sowed in our hoophouse 10/2. We have made three cuts already – very good value for the tiny amount of space occupied. Mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills and Golden Frills add a ferny shape and some loft to the mix. Mizuna is very mild, the other three are spicy. Other brassicas we are currently cutting small for our salad mixes include tatsoi and Russian kales (red and white). At some point, deeper in the winter, we’ll try to leave the kale alone to grow big for cooking greens. This will happen when we are shorter of cooking greens than salad items, and the kale has become more robust. Some of the crew are more hardcore than me, and include sturdier greens, like senposai. Later in the winter, other crops will come to the fore.
We also include as microgreens any thinnings from recently sowed rows of almost any greens, including radishes and turnips if they are not bristly-leaved varieties.
Our 10/24 hoophouse sowing of baby lettuce mix is almost ready to harvest – maybe in the next week or so. We have made an 11/2 second sowing of mizuna and friends, but the seedlings are still tiny, showing a big difference between the temperatures on 10/24 and those a week later on 11/2.
For cutting lettuce I like the plain steel scissors fromLee Valley. They are sturdy, easy to tighten and sharpen and ambidextrous. They are a traditional Chinese style.
Lastly, for those of you who want to know more about the Twin Oaks garden specifically, let me introduce you to the Twin Oaks Garden blog. It’s written by Wren Vile, one of the upcoming managers. I will be retiring as garden manager on March 1 2017, and Wren and Brittany will take over the day-to-day running of the garden. I won’t be going away, I’ll be around to answer questions, and I will continue to do some work in the garden, around the “edges”, rather than in the thick of the shifts. I’ll have more time for my writing and speaking on vegetable growing, and I’ll have more time off!
Here we are in the shortest days. What are we harvesting from our hoophouse (high tunnel)? Many different crops, mostly leafy greens, but with the addition of radishes, turnips and scallions. I’ll start with those.
We’re harvesting our third sowing of radishes, sown on 10/30. We like the vari-colored Easter Egg radishes and the long White Icicle for this time of year. Cherry Belle also works in this sowing, but not later. Like Sparkler, it gets too fibrous in winter.
Our favorite scallions are Evergreen Hardy White, which are extremely cold tolerant. They are also slow to grow. We are starting to harvest the ones we sowed 9/6. The second sowing (which followed the first radishes on 11/18) are just spindly little blades so far.
The turnips (and their greens) which we are starting to harvest at tangerine-size, are Hakurei and Red Round, from a 10/14 sowing. We made a second sowing of turnips on 10/26, but we over-watered them and got patchy germination. We filled the gap with a late sowing of brassica salad mix. This is a mixture of random leftover brassica seeds (varieties we didn’t like, seed that is getting a bit old) which we sow and then cut with scissors about an inch above the soil once they get to about 4″ tall.
Just like baby lettuce mix. We are on our second cut of our 10/24 lettuce mix. We buy the mix already made, although if we get close to running out of seed, we have been known to mix in some seed of basic varieties like the Salad Bowls, that do well in the winter high tunnel. We also have lots of big lettuce plants. We take leaves off those for our salad mixes when we don’t have baby lettuce mix at the right stage for cutting.
Into the salad mix we add chopped mizuna and its spicier cousins Golden Frills, Ruby Streaks and Scarlet Frills. These add loft, visual interest and flavor. For color we also add chopped Bulls Blood beet leaves and chopped small leaves of Brite Lites chard. As well as mixing the colors and shapes, I try to have at least one representative of each of three crop families: spinach, chard and beets; lettuce; brassicas such as mizuna, baby kale leaves, small leaves of Tokyo bekana, Yukina savoy, tatsoi.
For cooking greens we are harvesting leaves of Russian kale (transplanted 10/22), our first chard (transplanted 10/16), spinach (sown 9/6 and 10/24), senposai (transplanted 10/24), Tokyo bekana (transplanted 10/9) and Yukina savoy (transplanted 10/24). it takes 10 gallons of greens to provide 100 people with a healthy serving each. We aim to provide the cooks each day with a choice of two or three different cooking greens.
We are also harvesting some greens as whole heads now. We are clearing our first planting of tatsoi (sown 9/7), which has been getting ready to bolt for a couple of weeks now. Likewise the Tokyo bekana, which starts to bolt at the end of December.
We are also cutting big heads of Chinese cabbage and Pak Choy. As we harvest these, we fill the gaps at the end of the day with replacement plants. My current favorite is senposai, as it is very quick to grow and can be eaten at any stage. (And of course, it’s very tasty, otherwise I wouldn’t even mention it!) We reckon 12/31 is the last worthwhile date for us to do this gap filling with Asian greens. After that we use spinach or lettuce transplants up till 1/25, then only spinach (up till the end of February). We’ve found that planting after those dates doesn’t produce harvest, just wasted time!
The Yukina savoy doesn’t really start bolting until the last week of January normally, but with the freakish warm weather we’ve had this December, we might get early bolting. I don’t know if this crop bolts mostly in response to day length or to temperature. I guess we’ll find out.
We’ve ordered our seeds, we’re planning our next hoophouse crops and our schedule for sowing seedlings in the greenhouse. And this is the slow season!
I had a good time at the Heritage Harvest Festival this past weekend. My Friday workshop on Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops in the Woodland Pavilion had about 56 participants. If you missed it or want to see it again it’s here. Most of my slide shows are on SlideShare.net. Search for Pam Dawling and click on the one you want to see.
On Saturday I did my presentation on Asian Greens. And this morning I sowed Blues Chinese cabbage, Yukina savoy, Tokyo Bekana, and pak choy, as well as Brite Lites Chard and ten kinds of lettuce, to transplant into our hoophouse for winter greens.
Last winter we tried the Osborne Multileaf lettuces compared to Salanova types, and were well pleased with the Osborne ones. And so we are growing more of those this winter, along with Tango, Panisse, Oscarde, Merlot and Red Tinged Winter. Next week I’ll sow another ten lettuces (some of the same and some others), along with Russian kales and senposai, more Yukina Savoy and the first round of mizuna and fancy frilled mustards, such as Ruby Streaks.
The Tyee spinach under thick rowcover has sustained big damage, showing as patches of beige dead cells. It will recover. Meanwhile we can eat from the more-protected spinach in the coldframes and the hoophouse.
The Vates kale without rowcover is still alive, but badly damaged. The big leaves are crunchy and brown round the edges, and some of the inner leaves are dead. I hope it will grow back, but we won’t be able to pick that for a while. The Beedy’s Camden kale looks worse – the big leaves have died and flopped over. Not sure if it will recover.
Many of our strawberry plants look dead – very disappointing!
Our hardneck garlic and Polish White softneck tops are killed back to about one inch up from the mulch. Equally hardy, it seems.
We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. After the 4F assault we still had life in the centers of the Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest. Now only the Winter Marvel shows any signs of life. So that variety gets the prize for cold-tolerance here!
In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover every night it looked like dropping below 10F inside. Almost everything survived – we only got some minor stem freezing on some turnips and Asian greens. We have been eating Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana, Yukina Savoy, various turnips and their greens (Hakurei, White Egg, Oasis, Red Round), also plenty of lettuce leaves, radishes, scallions, and some spinach. We lost our second sowing of spinach in there to over watering and flooding, and we are really noticing the lack right now. We’re short on spinach. We have small amounts of mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bright Lights chard, Bulls Blood beets to add to salad mixes, and Red Russian and White Russian kale growing slowly.
In January we have taken to sowing spinach, kale and collards in a hoophouse bed to transplant outdoors in early spring. We back this up with sowing some in flats if we don’t get good emergence for some reason. This year emergence is late. Is it just late, or is there a problem? We’re holding our breath for a few more days. . .
We are not the only people tracking the effects of the unusually cold weather. The February Growing for Market magazine opens with an article by Ben Hartman “Testing the Limits of Cold Tolerance”. He farms in Goshen, Indiana, using two double-layer plastic greenhouses heated to 30F (yes. I said heated!) and two unheated. They planted kale, carrots, spinach, salad greens and arugula in their greenhouses for winter harvest. Their outdoor temperatures fell to -16F on 1/6 and 1/7. I imagine they’ve had worse since. They used mid-weight rowcover over their beds. Ben reports that baby greens and young spinach survived, as did their rosemary and their 3 fig trees (all farmers deserve some thrills!). They lost baby salad greens that had already been cut previously (all those cut edges didn’t do well). Crops in the outer beds were lost. The tips of full-grown kale leaves froze, but the plants survived.
In their unheated, single-skin plastic hoophouses, the soil froze down to 4″. They used two layers of mid-weight rowcover suspended over the crops. Despite this cold, tiny salad greens less than 1″ tall survived. Spinach survived under just one layer of rowcover. The carrot tops froze and the roots may or may not be marketable. The (uncovered) fully mature kale looks dead. The mature salad with two layers of rowcover didn’t survive.
From this experience, Ben points out that salad greens and spinach less than 1″ tall are very cold-tolerant. Spinach and kale once larger, benefit from more protection than they got this time. Beware the outer beds!
My own article in this issue is about matching crop spacing with desired goals, such as maximum yield, optimum size, or convenience for cultivation.
Andrew Mefford has written some greenhouse tips for hoophouse growers, including tomato grafting, trellising. Chris Blanchard has written the second part of his piece on growing herbs – this is about harvest and maintenance. Erin Benzakain has undertaken a 59-variety trial of celosia.
Recently I reported on which crops were still alive after two nights at 14F (-10C) and several others in the teens. We’ve now had the Arctic Vortex, which in our part of central Virginia, meant two nights at 4F, last Monday 1/6 and Tuesday 1/7 nights. How did it go?
Before the Prelude to the Big Chill, when we got 9F, I harvested the odds and ends of small cabbages left in our main patch. Quite worthwhile, I got two 5-gallon buckets. Between the 9F and the 4F nights, I decided to gather the Deadon cabbage, which we grew with January harvests in mind. There was some freeze damage, so in future I’ll say that Deadon is good down to 10F, but not lower. I got two full net bags and two more buckets of small ones. I left one smaller and one larger cabbage as sacrificial victims in the cause of better information for next year. When we got 4F, the smaller one died and the larger survived.
One of the other gardeners harvested the last of the outdoor senposai. Another couple of buckets of tasty food.
I took another walk round the frozen garden after the Big Chill, to see what is still alive. We have Tyee spinach under rowcover, and Vates and Beedy’s Camden kale without rowcover. They are all still alive! There’s some freeze damage in spots on the spinach leaves, but plenty of good meals still to come!
Our hardneck garlic tops suffered some damage but didn’t get killed back to the mulch level. The Polish White softneck tops are considerably smaller and they too are still alive. They will grow back if they have died.
We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. A good chance to see which ones are hardiest! Here’s the scoop:
Still alive in the centers – Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest. No longer alive – Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, Winter Wonder, Red Tinged Winter, Merlot, Red Sails, Outredgeous, Roman Emperor, Revolution.
At nearby Acorn Community, the home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, they had some young but mature heads of cabbage outdoors. The Late Flat Dutch, Early Flat Dutch and Chieftain Savoy all survived one night at 6F. (It’s usually two degrees warmer there than at Twin Oaks on winter nights).
Meanwhile I’m tracking the Blue Ridge kale grown by Clif Slade in his 43560 projectat Randolph Farm, VSU. The Blue Ridge survived. It got down to 9F there. Not as cold as Louisa County! Blue Ridge is taller than the Vates we grow, and I’d like to try it here, if it can survive our winters. Otherwise not!
In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover on Monday afternoon, and didn’t roll it up till Thursday, after the warmer weather returned. There was a tiny bit of freeze injury on some turnip greens that poked out the side of the rowcover, and some on some stems of Tokyo Bekana. I think the rowcover saved the crops! Also, a bad thing happened. it was very windy Monday night and the west window blew open. Argh! Of all the nights to have an open window. Memo: fix the latch to make it stronger.
I didn’t enjoy the really cold weather. I was anxious about the crops and the plumbing! But I can see two silver linings: I now have more information about cold-hardiness of various crops, and hopefully some pests will have died. Now we’re getting ready for another two cold nights, tomorrow and Wednesday.
When we placed our seed orders we gave up for this year on our quest for a reliable red cabbage of at least medium size and fairly speedy maturity (90 days or less). We’re having a red-cabbageless year. We’re still open to recommendations (OP or hybrid) – please leave a comment.
One of my ongoing topics of interest in the garden is how cold-tolerant various vegetables are. We’ve now had two nights at 14F (-10C) and several others in the teens. I took a walk round the frozen garden this morning to see what is still alive. We have Tyee spinach under rowcover, and Vates kale. The senposai is still alive, but some of the midribs have brown streaks. Sadly we don’t have any leeks this winter, as we lacked enough workers to tend them in late summer. We have a nice bed of Deadon cabbage, and I notice that some small heads of Melissa savoy that missed the bulk harvest are also alive. The Gunma cabbage stumps have some leaves and tiny heads still alive, but the Tendersweet are done in.
Our ongoing quest for a reliable red cabbage of at least medium size and fairly speedy maturity (90 days or less) yielded no success story this year. We grew Super Red 80 happily for many years, but then it stopped working for us – variable heads, slower maturity. If you have any recommendations (OP or hybrid) please leave a comment. We are working on our seed orders now, and this would be a great time to have some suggestions.
Back to today – our chard had all the leaves cut off in November, and seems to be dead. Some winters it hangs on later, if we leave some foliage to help it regenerate. We have also some years deliberately kept it alive for spring by using rowcover on it. We do that if we go into winter short of spinach beds.
The oats cover crop we sowed in August and early September look pretty much dead. All the broccoli looks dead. That’s as expected for the temperatures. Often we don’t get nights this cold till January – the cold came early this winter.
Our hardneck garlic tops look to be in good shape. The Polish White softneck tops are considerably smaller and look like they are suffering. They will grow back if they have died. Some of our Chandler strawberry plants look dead. Either that or they are extremely dormant! The deer were killing them off by eating the leaves. Too many deer!
The hoophouse is still bursting with great food. Plenty of salad greens: lettuce; various kinds of mizuna and ferny mustards like Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills and Bulls Blood beet leaves. And for salads or cooking we have spinach, chard, tatsoi, radishes, scallions, baby Hakurei turnips and their tasty greens, Red and White Russion kales, and more senposai. Soon we’ll start on the heading Asian greens: pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo bekana and Yukina Savoy. The first sowing of tatsoi (9/7) is starting to bolt, so we’re clearing that. The second sowing (11/15) needs thinning to an inch. The first round of baby lettuce mix (10/24) is ready for its second cut. In a few days we’ll make a second sowing of that. I love working in the hoophouse on sunny winter days. This afternoon I plan to complete the transplanting of an 11/9 sowing of spinach. We just love the sweet nuttiness of winter spinach!
This is a long post, but if your weather is set for all-day drizzle like it is here, you’ll have time to read it. I’m also sending a much shorter version to Mother Earth News, where I’m joining their Blog Squad. So if you are very short of time, you can look there in a few weeks.
This season is becoming past-tense, and some of us are already starting to think about next year. Seed companies are putting their catalogs together, and soon we’ll be snuggled beside our woodstoves perusing them, hoping to find varieties that will not repeat this year’s problems. Reading between the lines of the variety descriptions is a science and an art. How not to get carried away by all the positive exclamations and miss some basic fact that would tell you this variety is not for your farm?
Which catalogs do you buy from? See the Safe Seed Pledge list for companies that do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants. You may want to buy from local small seed companies who specialize in locally adapted varieties. Crops that overwinter in zone 7 could die in zone 5.
“Adaptable”“easy to grow” are good phrases to look for. Naturally, your climate will affect what grows well. Here it’s too hot for us to grow runner beans, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower. We don’t buy our okra seed from companies in the north – they are focused on varieties which will produce a decent crop in their climates. Our worries are different. “Requires an attentive grower” is a helpful warning. The size and skill of your labor force matter. Can you pick beans quickly enough to earn a decent living? “Best for organic production” means it doesn’t require lots of pesticides to keep it producing.
Heirlooms, OPs or hybrids?
What does your market want? Are they truly committed to heirlooms, or is flavor actually more important? Those are not the same thing! Some old varieties are rare for a reason! People didn’t like them much! Others are fantastic and easy to grow in quantity. Finding which are which is difficult. Heirloom tomatoes are a special challenge: which ones crack and split? The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit by Amy Goldman is not just a beautiful book, but a very useful one. The author spills the beans on which varieties are worth growing. She has books on squash and melons too, but I haven’t had the joy of reading those yet. Another reliable source on tomatoes is Craig LeHoullier.
An early zucchini might be 47 days from direct sowing, but even the late Costata Romanesco is only 52 days. How important is it to have zucchini 5 days earlier? And after your first sowing, is it still as important to have a 47-day variety? Or could you choose a different one (with other good qualities) and simply sow it a day or two sooner?
Raven zucchini has no listed disease-resistance, while Dunja withstands Powdery Mildew, Papaya Ringspot Virus (I had no idea. . .), Watermelon Mosaic Virus and Zucchini Mosaic Virus. Dunja has high yields of dark green zucchini, and so does Raven. Dunja has open plants and only small spines, so harvest is easy. Raven has open plants too. No mention of spines – are they wicked? Dunja is organically grown, Raven is not. How about price? Dunja costs twice as much as Raven! What price organic seed, disease-resistance and short spines?
Spineless Perfection (45 days) and Tigress (50 days) offer the same disease-resistance package. Both are medium green, high yielding, cylindrical zucchini. Spineless Perfection has an open plant, Tigress is only semi-open, and makes no promises about lack of spines. Price is very similar. Risk the five-day delay, the spines and the only “semi-easy harvesting” to save a dollar on 1000 seeds?
Disease resistance and tolerance
Good catalogs have a wealth of information about disease resistance or tolerance of their varieties. Do read their list of codes or abbreviations. (Admittedly the lists can sometimes be hard to find.) Don’t be a vegetable hypochondriac! Don’t let the length of the list scare you off – your plants won’t get everything listed. Johnny’s had 66 items in their Vegetable Disease Code list last time I counted.
It really helps if you monitored your plants and know which diseases you are trying to avoid. We don’t worry about Pea Leaf Roll Virus or Enation Mosaic Virus of peas because our pea season is so short that the plants will be dead of heat stroke before they get sick with anything.
When I was new to Virginia it took me several years to realize our tomato leaf disease was Septoria Leaf Spot. I even bought Early Blight resistant tomato seed one year and was sorely disappointed at the spotty leaves they got.
Beet greens resistant to cercospora will provide beautiful greens as well as roots. Early Wonder Tall Top is rated by Johnnys as the best beet for greens.
Days to maturity
Johnnys gives days-to-maturity from cool weather spring transplanting. They suggest adding 14 days from direct sowing (direct-sown crops suffer no transplanting shock, so grow faster overall, but you need to add in extra time from seeding to transplant size). Subtract 10-14 days for warm weather transplanting (as crops grow quicker then). Fedco lists days from direct seeding for many crops.They suggest subtracting 20 days from date of transplanting. With warm weather crops they list days from transplanting. For peppers the days listed are from transplanting to full-color maturity. Some catalogs list days to full-size green peppers only. “Early maturing” isn’t so useful if the seed rots in cold soil, so check for both pieces of info. Provider bean is cold-soil tolerant and fast-maturing.
Packet sizes: grams, ounces and seed counts
Take a steady look at packet size and seed specs (seeds/ounce or seeds/gram). Alas, this country has not yet fully metricated. Seeds are measured out in many ways. Go to www.metric-conversions.org/ and print yourself some conversion tables, or use the online calculators. Take a dark pen to your catalogs and write in the relevant numbers.
For a particular crop is “mild” better than “rich” or “robust”, or not? There are mild-flavored Asian greens such as mizuna, available in green, red and purple, and there are spicy mustard greens that look very similar: Golden Frills, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills, Red Splendor.
Ruby Streaks is an exceptionally beautiful plant. We tend not to like spicy mustard greens, but cut small into a salad mix, we have no trouble enjoying it.
“Compact”, “Mini” = small. Do your customers cook for just themselves? They’ll want mini. Are you supplying institutional kitchens? They’ll usually want full-size crops, unless they like “snack-size cucumbers” which they serve whole, with less work. If you want big cabbages, don’t buy from catalogs which have carefully chosen small to medium-sized heads because that’s what most people want these days. It can be hard to compare weights with measurements. Small = 2-4lbs, 4-6”. “Mini-broccolis”Santee, De Cicco won’t produce a big head, ever, just florets. Be sure your crew knows what size to pick.
Mache (corn salad) is a very small vegetable, usually eaten when the whole plant is 3-4” across. Even if the variety description says “long leaves” it’s all relative – maybe they’ll be 4” rather than 3” if you let them really grow.
At the other end of the Rampancy Rating are these key phrases: “needs room to roam,”“vigorous vines”: you can’t sell vines! Are they worth the space? Be sure you plant with appropriate spacing. “Needs sturdy trellis”: is it worth the time?
“Will be bitter in hot weather.” “Prefers warm days and nights – expect reduced yields in cooler areas”– you have been warned! Remember to check this. It’s refreshing that some catalogs now are more upfront “Not heat-tolerant” says Fedco about Bush Blue Lake bean. If your spring heats up quickly, you’ll want greens that are bolt-resistant as well as cold-tolerant, so you can set them out early. Giant Viroflay spinach sure grows big leaves, but they don’t last long in our climate. Tyee is more bolt-resistant, much better for us. Big chicory, radicchio and endive leaves are going to be bitter if grown at the wrong time of year and not blanched. And sometimes even if you do: they are not uniform varieties.
“Concentrated Fruit Set” versus“long harvest season”: length of harvest season is best viewed as potential rather than promised. If Mexican bean beetles or downy mildew are likely to take down your crops, you might do better to sow successions more frequently and not worry about long harvest periods. “Uniform maturity” is definitely a plus if you are growing a drying bean, popcorn, edamame or other single harvest crop. “Holds well in the field” is to your advantage if you hope to pick three times a week for a month.
“Easiest for hand harvest” (E-Z Pick beans) means they come off the vine easily; but “better for hand harvest” can mean simply unsuitable for machine harvest (plants sprawl). “Intended to be picked very slender” means tough when big, so be sure you get a high enough price to justify the lower yield and extra harvest time. And be sure you can harvest every 36-48 hours, or you won’t have anything edible.
Some broccoli has “good side-shoot production” (Gypsy, Amadeus, Belstar). If side-shoots aren’t mentioned, it’s likely that variety was bred for crown cuts.
“Short-term storage only” – we usually read this as “not for storage.” Tendersweet is a fine cabbage for fresh use – its leaves are thin and sweet. Thin leaves dry out fast, so it’s not good for storage.
“Retains flavor when frozen or canned” “Best for sauerkraut” “Good for kimchee” “Easy to shell” These phrases are music to the ears of gardeners putting up produce for winter.
Onions and latitude
Latitude makes a difference with onions. Happily, more catalogs now state which latitudes each variety is adapted for. We’re at 38°N. No use us growing Red Bull (43°-65°), as the days never get long enough to initiate bulbing. Nor do we have much hope for Desert Sunrise (30°-36°) – because after the spring equinox, our hours of daylight are more than further south – they will start bulbing before having a chance to grow very big. A few small leaves cannot produce a big bulb.
Some vegetables commonly thought of as winter squash are in catalogs as pumpkins. Many cans of pumpkin pie filling are not made from round orange-skinned pumpkins, but from squash. Choose squash varieties that grow well in your area and make all the pies you want. Or make no pies and serve the squash baked, or in soups. There are four types of squash: Pepo, the classic pumpkins, pattypans, acorn squash, delicata, dumplings, zucchini and summer squash; Moschata, the long-storing usually tan ones with hard five-sided stems, such as butternut, cheese pumpkins and Seminole squash; Maxima, the (often large) ones with fat round corky stems, such as hubbards, buttercups and bananas; and Mixta, less-common older Southern types like Cushaws.
Research at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange this year showed that many Moschata squash varieties, the kind most resistant to bugs, are also tasty at the immature stage as “summer squash”. So ignore what you’re “supposed to do” and do what works!
“Parthenocarpic” plants can set fruit without pollination, so good for hoophouse growing or production under rowcover or insect netting. Some new varieties of cucumbers and squash are parthenocarpic, and higher-priced, but some old favorites also happen to be parthenocarpic, Little Leaf pickling cucumber, for example.
“Gynoecious” plants have only female flowers, so yield can be higher. These plants still require pollination to set fruit, unless they are also parthenocarpic, so some seeds of another (pollinizer) variety are included in the packet. You’ll need to grow some of these, even though they won’t themselves give you the fruit you want. Sometimes the pollinizer seeds are colored, so you can be sure to sow some.
“Monogerm” beets produce only one seedling from each seedball/fruit. Others will need singling. Trade-off price versus time singling.
Warring sweet corn types
Don’t plant any Super Sweet varieties unless you put them at least 100ft away from other kinds, or you make sure they don’t flower within 10 days of each other. Mistakes will lead to horrible starchy kernels in both plantings. Think about this also if you are growing popcorn, dent corn, flint corn. Those dry corns also need to be separated from all sweet corns. Ignore the small print on this at your peril.
Super Sweet corns have other challenging features: the seed is smaller than normal corn, so your planter may need adjusting; Super Sweet seed needs to absorb twice as much water to germinate as normal corn; Super Sweets are more particular about seed depth (they do better at a shallower depth); Super Sweets have twice as much sugar as other corn and get sweeter after picking. It can get too much, so refrigerate promptly after harvest.
Too good to be true
New fancy types are often more risky. They don’t have all the problems resolved. Romanesco Broccoli – I don’t know anyone in Virginia who has successfully grown it. Flower Sprouts – hmmm. Try brand new things on a small scale first. All the fanfare over Indigo Rose tomato, the excitingly evil Deadly Nightshade color of the immature fruit, and then – blah flavor when ripe. “Good” flavor in a catalog may be the lowest rating. “Attractive purple pods” – Do they turn green when cooked? Purple carrots, striped green and white eggplant, white beets – will people buy them readily or will it be an uphill struggle?
Enjoy your winter catalog browsing! Here’s a cheering photo of wonderful fall colors at Twin Oaks. This is from Ezra’s blog A Year In the Woods