Organic Gardening

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8/21/2014
carrots

The first half of August is our last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. The second half of August is when we sow most of our winter crops. Depending on your climate zone, your dates might need to be earlier or later than ours. We're in cold-hardiness zone 7, and our average first frost date is October 14.  In August 2012 I wrote in my blog www.SustainableMarketFarming.com about Last Chance Sowings. Act now or very soon to provide fresh harvests, storage crops and, in the right climates, some crops to overwinter.

Consider planting these three categories of vegetable crops during late summer and fall:

Warm weather crops that will die with frost.
Cool weather crops that grow well in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in your summer.
Cold-hardy crops to grow over the winter and get off to a fast start in early spring.

Planning and timing are critical – you may not get a second chance with that vegetable, if germination fails the first time. The flip-flop challenge with fall crops is sowing in hot weather, followed by keeping the crop happy in cold weather. 

Warm Weather Crops

Don’t give up too soon! But be realistic about your chance of success. For crops that need to be harvested before killing frosts arrive, the formula for the last sowing date of frost-tender crops is:

Number of days from planting outdoors until harvest (read the catalog or seed packet)
+ Number of days from seeding to transplant if growing your own transplants
+ Number of days you want to harvest from that planting
+ 14 days “Fall Factor” to allow for the slowing down of growth rate as the weather cools
+ 14 days from your average first fall frost date (safety margin in case you get an early frost)
= Days to count back from your average first fall frost date, to find your last sowing date

With rowcover to throw over on chilly nights, you can risk later sowings. For example, yellow squash takes 50 days from sowing to harvest, and our last planting is 8/5, a whole month later than the above calculation suggests. Towards the frost date, you are just keeping the developing fruits growing, so you don’t need to worry that rowcover prevents pollination – you don’t need to get more flowers pollinated. In many parts of the country, a frost or two will be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is worth the effort. (Unless you’ve reached the exhaustion point we call “Praying for a Killing Frost.”) It’s easy to get harvests for a whole extra month from mature plants you have still alive.

Flame Weeding. Credit Brittany Lewis

Cool Weather Spring and Fall Crops

This group includes beets, carrots, chard, spinach, lettuce, scallions, peas, potatoes, Asian greens and other leafy brassicas, turnips, rutabagas and radishes. Fall gives you a second chance to enjoy these crops. The flavor of crops produced during warm late summer days and cool nights can be a delicious combination of succulent crunch and sweetness.

The above formula for calculating last sowing dates for frost-tender crops can be modified for hardier vegetables too. Here's an example: Early White Vienna Kohlrabi needs 58 days from sowing to harvest (line 1). You can direct sow, so line 2 = 0. You can harvest it all at once and store it in your cooler, so line 3 is 1 day. Assuming you don’t want to use rowcover for this, line 4 = 14. Line 5 = 14 also. That all adds up to 87 days. Kohlrabi is hardy to maybe 15°F. The temperature at our farm is not likely to drop to 15°F before the end of November, so counting 31 days in October, 30 in September, plus 31 in August – that’s 92 days already, more than enough. We could sow kohlrabi in early August and get a crop at the end of October, or sow in late August and harvest late November.

We sow fall carrots along with some "indicator beets," and run overhead irrigation at night about every other night until they come up. When we see the indicator beets starting to germinate, we flame-weed the carrot beds. Next day there are hazy rows of green - germinated carrots!

We made ourselves a chart of sowing dates for fall harvest crops so that we don’t have to calculate each time. It helps us ensure we don’t sow too late to get a decent harvest. We made this for brassica crops, but you can use the general method to chart later into the fall or winter for other crops.

Sowing dates for crops with various days to maturity

Days to   Harvest Harvest Harvest
Harvest   mid-Sept- late Sept- from  
    mid Oct mid-Oct mid-Oct
30d   27-Jul 16-Aug 31-Aug
40d   17-Jul 6-Aug 21-Aug
50d   7-Jul 27-Jul 11-Aug
60d   27-Jun 17-Jul 1-Aug
70d   17-Jun 7-Jul 22-Jul
80d   7-Jun 27-Jun 12-Jul
90d   28-May 17-Jun 2-Jul
100d   18-May 7-Jun 22-Jun
110d   8-May 28-May 12-Jun
120d   28-Apr 18-May 2-Jun
130d   18-Apr 8-May 23-May
kale

We don't sow spinach till September, so we're not behind on that yet! Because spinach germinates poorly in warm soil, we wait for temperatures to drop. This "summer" has been extremely cool, but we're in no hurry to start spinach earlier than usual, because of all the other tasks. This year it would probably work. I saw fall dead nettle germinating on 8/4. That's a phenology sign that the soil is cool enough for spinach. I've been recording phenology data here since 2003. 8/4 is the earliest date I have for dead nettle, by a margin of 11 days! It has been as late as 9/1 (2004). I also saw chickweed on 8/18. Fall is coming early this year!

Cold-Hardy Crops To Grow Over Winter

I covered this topic in detail in Growing for Market magazine in September 2010, and in my slideshow Cold-hardy winter vegetables. The gist is “Before taking the plunge, know your climate, know your resources, know your market, know your crops, and when you don’t know, experiment on a small scale.” Useful information includes the winter-kill temperature of the crop you want to grow. Choose hardy varieties, and be clear about whether you intend to harvest outdoors all winter (kale, spinach, leeks, parsnips, collards for us), or whether you want to have small crops going into winter so you can rest during the winter and be first out the gate in early spring, with crops waiting for you.

Flame Weeding photo credit: Brittany  Lewis; row crop credit Kathryn Simmons


8/20/2014

Rack2Once your garlic has been harvested, it needs to be ‘cured’ to prepare it for storage. Since this process takes weeks to complete, you’ll be glad to know that it began while your bulbs were still in the ground! Curing is essentially a more formal term for drying. If you are consuming your garlic right away, then curing it isn’t really necessary. If you want to store it for any length of time, however, then proper curing is essential to prevent that garlic you worked so hard all year to grow, from becoming moldy, shriveled, or otherwise compromised. The goal of curing is get the outer wrapper and clove skins of the garlic completely dry, while maintaining the lovely, fleshy oiliness of the cloves themselves.

Once harvested, garlic takes approximately three to six weeks to fully cure, depending on conditions including temperature, humidity, air circulation, amount of green material left on the bulbs, and the size and type of bulbs. As you would expect, larger bulbs and those with more green material take longer to cure, so softnecks tend to require a longer curing period than hardnecks. High humidity and poor air circulation will also increase the length of time for curing, and a longer drying time increases the risk of mould and other pathogens and, subsequently, decreased storage capability. Likewise, don’t be tempted to rush the process, since this can result in dry, shriveled bulbs that also store poorly.

Garlic Bulb Curing Methods

There are different ways to cure your bulbs based on the amount of garlic to be cured and the space in which to cure it. Two commonly used methods include hanging the garlic in bunches, or stacking the bulbs in vented boxes. Whichever method you choose, remember that garlic should never be cured in the sun, in order to prevent discoloration and softening.

Curing garlic by hanging it in bunches is a method preferred by small-scale growers, and can be used for both hard and softneck varieties. The garlic is not trimmed, but rather gathered into small bundles of six to twenty-four bulbs, which are tied with twine or string and hung from wall racks or nails. Although the leaves and stalk are not trimmed, the scape usually is, since it retains a high level of moisture. The bundles should be tied securely, and balanced with the bulbs angling downward. Ensure that the bundles are hung someplace dry and cool, with moderate humidity and good air circulation.

If you are growing garlic on a scale too large to permit you to hang bundles, vented boxes or racks can be used to efficiently cure your garlic, although this method can be somewhat risky and requires proper management. Ideally, the bulbs, whether you are using vented boxes or racks, would be dried in a single layer. Rarely is this possible due to space constraints, so alternatively, the bulbs can be layered to a maximum of 3-4 deep per box or rack, with the boxes and racks then stacked upon each other. There should be a minimum of two inches of space between the top layer of bulbs and the lower layer of the box above, to guarantee adequate air circulation.

Keep Cool and Dry

Boxed or racked garlic must also be kept someplace cool and dry, with good air circulation and moderate humidity. Managing these elements is more challenging with this method, as a large number of bulbs will release a significant amount of moisture into the air, drastically increasing the humidity of the storage room and making rot and mould a constant threat. To achieve successful curing, proper air circulation is essential, including a quick way to release large amounts of moisture if necessary. In our shed, for example, we use a combination of vented floors and industrial fans to keep cool air constantly circulating in and around the garlic, and the humidity is carefully monitored by constant measurement. The shed is also equipped with a large sliding door, which we can open if the air moisture level should rise above 50%.

Your garlic is finished curing when the skins feel completely dry and papery. The cloves should still be firm and plump. If, on breaking open a sample bulb, all the outer layers of skins are dry, and the clove skins are thin, tight and dry, then your bulbs are likely ready for storage. Garlic will continue to cure as long as it is stored properly, so that even garlic that is not completely cured at the time of storage should keep for months.

Rack1



8/20/2014

Romanian Farmer Woman

This photograph, which I took in Deva, Romania, always makes me happy. Spring. Travel. The surprise of the unexpected. We entered the farmhouse courtyard of this Romanian subsistence farmer through a door in a wall. One never knows what these private spaces will reveal. In this case, the courtyard was dominated by the glowing personality of the country woman whose farm it was. I asked to be shown her kitchen garden. It was a step back in time. In addition to the plants being grown for food were the plants staked for seed saving. I recall in particular a row of staked bolting lettuce. As country people tend not to waste time, while showing me the garden my host took the opportunity to harvest an immense kohlrabi for her afternoon meal. She carried the kohlrabi out of the garden to a chopping stump where she trimmed it with a hatchet and then, in what was virtually a single movement, tossed the trimmings over the chicken coop fence. I can still recall the sense of awakening as I saw the kohlrabi leaves dropping down into the coop. Here were whole systems, simple, elegant, ancient.

From the coop we went to see the bread oven. It was located in the barn. Small, rudimentary in the extreme, it was made of crude bricks with no insulation. Like the chipped plate in the photograph on which she is offering me fruit, the oven was a sign of the material poverty in which she and her husband lived. I took photographs of the oven and was then taken back outside and sat down on a chair in the shade of a tree. My host returned a short time later, smiling, with the berries and flowers you see in the photograph. Her husband poured a round of plum alcohol and we drank to friendship.

While the grinding work of a Romanian subsistence farm isn’t anything that I would choose for myself, there are aspects of the life that are attractive. In particular, the practices that I think of as the circles of life — eating food one has grown oneself, saving seeds, feeding poultry with garden scraps, and then eating their eggs (or them), and preserving a fruit harvest to cement friendships with strangers.

Having no choice in life is awful. Having to depend entirely on the food one raises to eat because one has no other choice is not an appealing life. Young people have fled the Romanian countryside. But having virtually infinite choices has its problems, too. My own urban vegetable plot ebbs and flows in productivity depending on my life, but as a rule, there is always at least something that can be harvested. I find it fundamentally reassuring when the answer to the question of what salad there is for dinner is simply the lettuce growing in the garden. And when it bolts (selecting the plants that bolt last), stake them and either gather the seed for replanting before they blow away or let the seeds scatter in the wind to become garden volunteers.



8/19/2014

Fall garden

August is a fairly hot month throughout the United States. Don’t let that deter you from planting a fall garden. There is still time to have fresh homegrown produce for fall. Most fall crops are started from seed in May, June and July. In August, if you haven’t already started seeds for fall, it is best to buy established plant starts. Most plant nurseries sell plant starts for fall gardening.

Fall Garden Vegetables

The following plant starts can be planted now for a late fall harvest: scallions, squash, cucumber, broccoli, cabbage, kale, chard, lettuce, spinach, and pumpkins.

The following greens do well when planted now from seed for fall: spinach, kale, chard and lettuce.

The following root crops can be planted now for a late fall harvest: carrots, beets and turnips.

Radishes can be planted now as well and are typically ready to harvest in 30 days. What we plant now in the Midwest for next years harvest: Garlic can be planted in late October of this year to be ready for early July Harvest. Carrots and spinach can also be planted in October for an early spring harvest next year.

lettuce

Head lettuces and other hardy greens will overwinter well. Perennial herbs can be planted now. The following annual herbs can still be planted to enjoy in late summer/early fall: parsley (actually a biennial), cilantro, basil and dill. Because of the hot weather in August, be sure to either use drip irrigation, or water regularly. Straw bales work well to mulch vegetable crops.

Sheet mulching, or lasagna gardening, is an excellent way to keep your garden bed weed-free. Sheet mulching is essentially layering compost, leaf mulch, grass clippings, newspaper, more compost, and straw or mulch around each of your garden plants to help suppress weeds, add nutrients and retain moisture. Compost is a gardener’s best friend! A simple compost bin can be made using reclaimed materials such as pallets or an old wire fence panel. Pallets make excellent garden beds.



8/15/2014

Provider bush beansWhen you look at the details of seed varieties, one of the bits of information you will find is “days to maturity.” That is the expected time it will take from planting the seed or transplant in the ground until you can expect a harvest. In my garden planning DVD and in my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, I advise you to use that number of days when determining when you might expect to begin harvesting the crops you are planting. You could record that information on a Plant/Harvest Schedule so you know what to expect throughout the season. Until you have more experience with the specific varieties you are growing, that is a good way to begin. If you keep even the most minimum of records, such as writing on a calendar when you planted something and when the harvest started, you will begin to have a more accurate guide for your garden planning.

My mind was on days to maturity this summer when I had to plan to grow the snap beans for our son’s August 2 wedding. You can find out more about that wedding planning at HomeplaceEarth. I usually grow Provider bush beans to can. It is quick maturing (42 days in my garden) and reliable. I am comfortable with the two week harvest window and pick four times during those two weeks. The harvest is a little lighter on the first and last pickings, but not significantly. When I worked things out on the Plant/Harvest Schedule, I realized that I would have to plant these beans as soon as we returned from a week-long trip. Knowing things can pop up unexpectedly that might delay planting at that time, I wanted to put the beans in the ground before we left. I needed to find a bean that would mature a week later.

The seed catalogs list Provider at 50 days. I decided upon Jade and Gold Rush to grow for the wedding feast. They were both listed at 55 days. Since Provider beans are actually ready to harvest at my place after 42 days, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the first picking of Jade and Gold Rush happened on 47 days after planting. The seed catalog had listed them as maturing five days later. What I wasn’t prepared for was quantity of Gold Rush beans I would have that first picking — two thirds of what would be the total harvest was ready that day! The following week, on day 54, the harvest yielded two thirds of what would be the total harvest for the Jade beans. I suppose if you were used to growing these varieties, you would look forward to, and plan for, a bulk harvest such as this. For me, I’ll go back to growing Provider beans.

I think I will grow yellow beans again, though. I used to grow them long ago and don’t know why I stopped. I liked to can them with some of the green beans. I remember yellow beans as maturing later than the green beans I was growing in my market garden. I could can the green and yellow beans separately whenever they come in, but it would be fun to can them together. In that case, I would want to make sure the harvests overlap. If I planted Provider and Gold Rush at the same time, the bulk of the Gold Rush harvest would come in the middle of the Provider harvest window. Another variety may have a harvest that would be more spread out. Gold Rush had straight pods that I wanted for the wedding, since the beans would be cooked whole. For canning they would be cut up, so curled beans would be fine if a curled variety would better meet the harvest times. If I found a yellow variety that would have a two week harvest, with amounts the same as Provider, I would pay attention to the days to maturity. If they matured a week later, I could plant them a week before Provider beans and be picking both varieties at the same time.

When you begin gardening, the particular varieties may not be as important to you. A harvest of any kind of snap beans would be welcome. Once you notice all the nuances of each variety, life can get more interesting. My focus here was the harvest window and days to maturity. Other things to pay attention to would be taste, color, and shape. Sometimes it is a memory that drives you to grow a certain variety. If wonderful memories of your grandmother handing you a ripe tomato in her garden when you were young pop into your mind when you encounter tomatoes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the variety you would choose for your garden.

Learn more about what Cindy Conner is up to at www.HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com.



8/14/2014

late fall gardenGardeners dreaming of frost-touched collards, sweet winter roots, crisp fall lettuce and huge heads of broccoli need to get busy planning and planting now. Here in central Virginia and further north it is already time to start transplanting cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower seedlings started earlier in late June or July. Lettuce, winter roots, kale, Oriental and other leafy greens can be planted starting in July and continuing into September. Gardeners in the Carolinas, coastal Virginia and further south still have enough time to start all Brassica seedlings. For more precise planting dates in your area talk with experienced gardening neighbors or consult a fall planting schedule from your local Master Gardeners or state extension service. For some great tips and detailed info on fall timing in Virginia and the Carolinas see Southern Exposure’s Fall/Winter Growing Guide by Ken Bezilla or catch his Zero Degree Gardening workshop at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 13, 2014. 

To keep the harvest coming through summer into fall and winter is a real juggling act. Begin by reviewing your plans for summer successions and starting seedlings for fall and winter vegetables. Take into account special considerations for fall: impending frosts and the decreasing temperatures and daylight. The liberal use of transplants helps with the transition from summer abundance to fall plenty in our Southern Exposure Seed Exchange trial garden beds. See our earlier post on Fall Planning and Planting for more tips on calculating the right time to sow and choosing the best crops for your fall garden.

Take care of the soil before you plant. Successfully growing multiple crops in one year means paying extra attention to building the soil. Before fall planting add generous amounts of compost and any other amendments recommended by your most recent soil test. 

Cover crops are especially important for four season organic gardeners. Ideally set aside one or more beds for summer cover crops like crowder peas, sun hemp, or buckwheat. Avoid bare soil in the fall and winter garden: plant fall and winter cover crops like oats, rye, vetch, or winter peas in any areas not being used for crops. We under sow corn and broccoli with clover to get a head start on our fall cover crop. In summer, we plant buckwheat in areas that will be open as little as 5 weeks to suppress weeds and add organic matter. Harvey Ussery points out some of the special benefits of these quick growing warm weather plants in Best Summer Cover Crops.

What to Plant in Late Summer

In Virginia, North Carolina and nearby states summer planting for fall and winter harvest starts in June with Brussels sprouts and accelerates in July with sowing seed for broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, cauliflower, and oriental greens to be transplanted to their final location after four weeks. Lettuce and Oriental greens are ready to move in only 2-3 weeks during mid-summer in Virginia and the Carolinas. 

Seedlings for fall plantings can be started in flats on benches high enough up (3 feet) to deter flea beetles, under spun polyester row cover, or in an enclosed shade structure. At our Southern Exposure Trial Gardens in Central Virginia we prefer to use outdoor seedling beds well supplied with compost in a location shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. The north side of a stand of corn, caged tomatoes, or pole bean trellis makes an excellent choice. Outdoor seedling beds should be covered with thin spun polyester row cover or the newer Proteknet row cover to guard against flea beetles and other insects. Transplanting makes for a faster turnaround when garden space becomes available. 

Don’t forget to plant a last summer succession of quick maturing beans, corn, squash, and cucumbers in late June or early July to mature and harvest just before frost. Keep plants growing fast and reduce risk of disease by providing regular and adequate moisture (1 inch per week).

In July and early August we direct sow chard, creasy greens, carrots, beets, winter radishes, and other roots. In the cases of lettuce and carrots summer succession plantings meld seamlessly into our fall garden plantings. Later in August and early September sow kale, arugula, turnips, rutabagas, spinach, and lots more lettuce. Make a late September sowing of kale and spinach to winter over as smaller plants under row cover, then make rapid growth in the lengthening days of early spring during what used to be called “the hunger gap” in March and April. Use row covers, cold frames or later plantings in a greenhouse to further extend the growing season. Leave plenty of room in the garden to plant garlic and perennial onions mid-October through Thanksgiving.

Ira Wallace works, lives, and gardens at Acorn Community Farm home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange where she coordinates variety selection and new seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open-pollinated, and organic seeds. Ira is also a co-organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and Virginia Association for Biological Farming. She is a frequent presenter at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and many other events throughout the Southeast.  Her new book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast is available online and at booksellers everywhere.



8/14/2014

Red Malabar SpinachWhile we are in the midst of hot summer weather it is a good time to reconsider what is growing in our gardens. It is also good to think about the time we actually have to spend there, in the midst of other activities. Notice what is doing the best as the summer progresses, especially with little attention other than picking. Some crops tend to shut down if the temperature gets too high. For Malabar spinach, however, the hotter the better. It is a tropical plant that loves the heat.

The brassica crops, such as kale and collards that I grow for greens from fall till spring, do not hold up well in Zone 7 to our warm summer nights (in the 60s and 70s)) and hot days (regularly in the 90s). Lettuce likes cool weather, also, but can be coaxed along in the summer with some shade and lots of water. Malabar spinach doesn’t need that kind of attention.

What you see in the photo is red-stemmed Malabar spinach (Basella rubra). There is also a green-stemmed variety (Basella alba). I prefer the red for climbing up the trellis in my garden. You can find some nuances of the red and green varieties at Homeplace Earth. In his upcoming book, Eat Your Greens: the surprising power of homegrown leaf crops, David Kennedy suggests that you can grow Malabar spinach in hanging pots. That sounds interesting and if I had limited space I might consider it. But then I’d have to remember to water the pots; something I’m not too good at. Could you imagine walking out to your deck and cutting the leaves and stems for your stir fry just before cooking dinner? They would just be hanging there waiting for you!

Malabar spinach can be eaten raw, but is often eaten cooked. The texture of the leaves is a little mucilaginous, which I don’t find to be a deterrent. That makes it good for your digestive system. As you are making notes of what to have in your garden next summer, if you haven’t grown Malabar spinach yet, I hope you put it on the list of new things to try.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at www.HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com.









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