Signs of winter, signs of spring

Tokyo bekana in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

 My  Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021 has not changed much in recent years. But I’ve just got some precise information on Tokyo bekana, the Asian green that grows well in summer as a lettuce substitute; grows very well outdoors in the fall; and grows wonderfully in the winter hoophouse even in low light conditions. In my 2023 list the outdoor killing temperature is listed as 25°F (–4°C).

Ugly, but not dead yet! Tokyo bekana outdoors on January 7, 2024 after several cold nights at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January.
Photo Pam Dawling

I harvested the last of the outdoor Tokyo bekana in November, except for one plant that was starting to bolt. I left that one to see when it would succumb to cold weather.  It was seriously damaged but not killed at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January. It was killed by 8°F (-13°C) and 10°F (-12°C) in mid-January.

Now it’s really dead! Tokyo bekana after two January nights at 8F and 10F.
Photo Pam Dawling

My tendency is to move only partway towards my new information each time I get some. This allows my info to gradually center in on the sweet spot, rather than have wild pendulum swings. So for the 2024 list, I’ll cautiously say it dies at 20°F (–7°C). I’ll release my new list for 2024 in March.

I’m updating my Phenology Record with Recommendations for Planting.

Our first crocus . February 1, 2024
Photo Pam Dawling

On February 1st we saw our first crocus bloom (it averages 2/7), our first speedwell, and Hellebore/Lenten roses with big buds (the flowers opened by 2/11). Hellebore often blooms with the daffodils, but our daffodils are only half-height leaves at this point. There are many hybrid hellebores and I’ve no idea which one ours is.

Lenten Rose (Hellebore) buds on February 1,2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Robin Migration

Robins can be found year-round almost anywhere south of Canada, as residents or short-distance migrants. Birds that breed from Canada to the north slope of Alaska leave in fall for the U.S. Some robins winter as far south as the Southwest, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast.

Robin Range Map from All About Birds.

“Our” robins arrived on February 3rd, partying in an eastern redcedar (juniper) tree, enjoying the berries. According to this All About Birds Robin Range Map, robins are migratory thrushes that can be found here in Virginia year-round. Ours definitely migrate, arriving here anywhere from January 20 (2009) to March 3 (2013). The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources notes that in mid-late February and early March they fly through headed north.

Eastern redcedar (Juniper) leaves and berries.

The DWR notes: “Robins’ seasonal movements are said to be tied to a 37-degree “isotherm.” An isotherm is a line on a map where the average temperature is the same at various points across the line.  As robins move from southern states into more northern ones, they stop and hunker down when they reach the limits of the isotherm.” They could reach the Arctic in May, if they travel that far!

Also see Journey North’s “Robin Migration Study” website. You can join and report your sightings and hearings of various signs of spring, not only robins.

Speedwell flowering on February 1, 2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Corn planting time!

Last year's young sweet corn plants with a fiber banana plant to the right. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Last year’s young sweet corn plants with a fiber banana plant and a sunflower to the left.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

A week ago, I showed a group of local Master Gardeners around our gardens. At that point, the raised bed area was a mixed portrait of rowcover and weeds! All the crops were sheltered under cover and all the visible beds were full of weeds. So much has changed in a week. We mowed all the weedy beds, tilled many of them, and removed the rowcover to our strawberry beds and our new cabbage and broccoli planting. We’ve even found time to hoe the planted beds and weed and thin the three beds of beets.

We had more struggles with our broccoli.  A couple of weeks ago, I told you all about the moles gathering nesting material from our first broccoli flats. We dealt with that, planted out what we had left, and moved our second planting to the coldframe. Something browsed on them. Deer? Rabbits? Groundhogs? We sprayed the plants with a stinky deer repellant and scattered hot pepper on them. And covered them at night. Now we’ve planted those out and put the third planting in the cold frame. So far, so good. . .

The black center of this strawberry flower show that it was hit by frost and no berry will develop. Credit Kathryn Simmons
The black center of this strawberry flower show that it was hit by frost and no berry will develop.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’ve had a couple of cold nights (hence the need to move the rowcover to the strawberries to protect the blossoms from possible frosts.)

Healthy unfrosted strawberry flower. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Healthy unfrosted strawberry flower.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

But overall the season is warming up. After lots of waiting we are finally getting asparagus. Many of the signs of spring all happened in rapid succession: the lilac is blooming, morning glories and smartweed have germinated, the crimson clover cover crop is starting to flower and I’ve heard the whippoorwills at night.

Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

The white oak leaves have definitely exceeded the size of squirrels’ ears. This is our sign to sow sweet corn. We did that yesterday. Bodacious, 77-days to maturity, yellow, great flavor for corn this early. These days we hedge our bets and also extend the harvest period by sowing the second half of the patch 3 days after the first half. Contrary to myths you might have heard, it is quite possible to transplant sweet corn, so those in marginal climates don’t need to give up hope. We usually prepare some plugs the same day we sow our first corn outdoors and use these to fill gaps at the first cultivation.  If disaster doesn’t strike and there are no gaps worth worrying about, we give the transplants away to local gardeners who were less lucky, or didn’t get round to direct sowing their own.

We use 200-cell Styrofoam Speedling flats (1″, 2.5 cm cells) with one corn kernel in each cell. We float them in a tank of water until we set them out. Some vegetable seedlings would drown if continuously in water, but corn does not. It is important to transplant the corn before the plant gets too big and the taproot takes off. Two- to three-inch (5–7.5-cm) plants seem OK. The plugs transplant easily using butter knives.

Corn has no tolerance to frost. However, escape from a late spring frost is possible if the
seedlings are less than two weeks old and not yet very tall, as the growing point may still be underground.Thus, in a spring that promises to be warm and dry, it is possible to risk an early planting as much as 2–3 weeks before the last frost date. Having some transplant plugs for a backup helps reduce the risk level.

Here’s an aspect of hybrid corn varieties that confuses many people: There are several genotypes, and if you inadvertently plant a mixture of different types, it can lead to starchy unpleasant-flavored corn. Ignore those cryptic catalog notes at your peril! here’s the Cliff Notes:

Normal sugary (su or ns) types have old-fashioned corn flavor but are sweeter than open pollinated varieties, although the sweetness disappears fairly rapidly after harvest. Not a problem for home gardeners who can cook the corn they harvested earlier that day. Most can germinate well in cool soil. 

Sugary-enhanced (se) and sugary enhanced homozygous (se+ or se-se) types are more tender than (su), and slower to become starchy after harvest. Most, especially the (se+) types, are sweeter than (su) types. We grow (se) and (su) types, and avoid the others – sweetness and simplicity!

Nearly all newer sweet corn types rely on one of two recessive genes, su or sh2. Cross-pollination with other corn groups will produce the dominant genetics of field corn, that is, starch not sugar. Don’t mix Super Sweet sh2 types with any other corn. Also don’t plant Indian corn, popcorn or any kind of flint or dent corn within  600′ (180 m) of your sweet corn. For this reason we grow only sweet corn in our garden. In case you are tempted by variety descriptions of the newer types, though, here’s more about them:

The Super Sweet (sh2) varieties, also known as shrunken, are very sweet and slow to become starchy. They have very poor cold soil germination. The kernels are smaller than other corns, giving this type its name.

Synergistic (se-se-se-sh2) types are combinations of genetics from several genotypes. Each ear has 75 percent (se) kernels and 25 percent (sh2) kernels. They are flavorful, tender and sweet, but only when they are ripe. If picked too soon, they are a watery disappointment. 

“Augmented shrunken” types contain the sh2 gene and some of the tenderness from the se types. 

We’re looking forward to plenty of sweet corn this year – we’re off to a good start!