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.

Article on asparagus beans in Growing for Market

GFM-JuneJuly2014-cover-300pxThe June/July summer issue of Growing for Market is out, and with it my article about growing asparagus beans (yard-long beans). The photos in my article are from my friends at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. 

Somehow we didn’t seem to have taken any pictures of our own asparagus beans. We usually grow a purple one, either Red Noodle or Purple Pod. We like them to provide some eye-catching visual variety among the greens and pale colors of other veggies in a mix, and the “short stick” shape adds another kind of difference.

Purple Pod asparagus bean, Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

They are an easy crop to grow in warm weather. Once you have set up their required tall trellis, you can pretty much stand back and let them grow. They aren’t troubled by Mexican bean beetle or (in our experience) by diseases. They can tolerate some amount of drought. One short row can feed you all summer. We grow just about 34′ for 100 people, and get plenty. Having said that, I wouldn’t give up green beans for these – I don’t like the flavor as much as green beans, hence my suggestion to use them in mixed dishes.The mild flavor has been compared to a mix of bans, asparagus and mushrooms. Quite different from green beans.

Chop the pods into one-inch pieces for cooking. Their real strength is as part of a stir-fry or a curry. Their unique flavor is brought out best by dry-frying in a hot wok with peanut oil, garlic and soy sauce. You can also stew them with tomato sauce; or boil, drain, and season with oil and lemon juice; or simmer in oil or butter with garlic. The pale green varieties are meatier and sweeter than the dark green ones, which have a stronger flavor.  In soups, Chinese Red Noodle, with a small amount of vinegar added, produces a deep wine-red broth. Asparagus beans are a good source of vitamins A and C.

Although they are also known as Yard-long beans, you don’t actually want to let them grow that big, or they get puffy and tough. Harvest while they are still thinner than a pencil,about 10-15″ long, and before the beans develop. We pick ours three days a week, right through until the frost kills the vines.

Also in this issue of Growing for Market is an article by the editor, Lynn Byczynski, about food safety of leafy greens in summer. Triple rinsing your greens in potable water, and spinning out the water before cooking (or eating raw), will greatly reduce the likelihood that you let any nasty micro-organisms into your lunch.

Brett Groshsgal has written a good article about Lyme Disease, which we farmers risk more than the average population. He describes the symptoms (never mind looking for that elusive bulls-eye rash, which 40% of adults and a higher percentage of children never get), and urges prompt treatment with antibiotics. He says bluntly that holistic or alternative treatment methods don’t work, so waste no time getting the antibiotics. Then you can get on with your life.

Etienne Goyer writes about a growers’ convention in Quebec to build DIY raised bed shapers, cultivators and finishers. This is part of the ADABio Autoconstruction association mission to empower farmers with the skills to build their own machinery. I had looked at their website, but struggled with my high school French, so I am very happy to have this explained in English!

Lastly, Gretel Adams writes about how to set prices for cut flowers, for retail, wholesale, weddings and bouquets.

My other main news is that a variation on my blogposts about biodegradeable plastic mulches has just been published on Mother Earth News’ Organic Gardening blog.

Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog
Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog