All posts by Lisa Dermer

Fresh Greens to Harvest from Fall through Winter

Spinach with Leaf Mulch
Spinach with Leaf Mulch

By Ira Wallace

Fall and winter offer a second chance to grow all the delicious greens and wonderful roots we savor in spring. They’re even easier to grow, thanks to decreasing weed pressure and reduced need to water. Many winter greens, like kale, collards, and spinach, even taste sweeter in fall as they concentrate sugars to withstand colder temperatures.

Our garden is brimming with greens ready for harvest now, as well as younger plants that we won’t harvest until early spring when they will grow rapidly as the days begin to lengthen.

Elliot Coleman coined the term “Persephone Days” for the period when there is less than 10 hours a day of sunlight and plant growth slows to a halt. Typically November 21st through January  21st, or a little longer due of outside ground temperatures. So what you see in the garden now is what you get until early February for practical purposes, unless you are growing under cover in a greenhouse, cold frame or low tunnel.

With an extended drought and weeks of record breaking highs, 2016 was a really tough year for establishing our fall crops. In many cases we had to do a third succession planting to get the beds full of thriving plants. In the case of spinach and kale, our last and most successful sowing was in early October. For an idea of what and when we sow most years read our blog post on Summer Sowing: Continuous Harvest All Summer into Fall or look at our Southern Exposure Fall and Winter Growing Guide.

So let’s take a look at some of what we have green and growing in the garden on “Black Friday Weekend 2016”:

vates collards
vates collards

Kale, collards, and spinach are our largest plantings for winter greens because of their versatility in the kitchen and dependable winter hardiness. Because our earliest succession plantings had spotty germination we have a lot more plants from the later sowings. Luckily for us the unusually warm temperatures continued into November so we have nice full beds of Abundant Bloomsdale spinach and Lacinato Rainbow kale going into December. Fortunately half grown ”juvenile” plants often survive the winter and last longer into the spring. In addition to the heat and drought our collards were also attacked by grasshoppers in August so the remaining plants are smaller than usual at this time. Heirloom collards are survivors so I expect they will do well and start vigorous growth again in early spring.

tatsoi rosette
tatsoi rosette

We have already harvested many of our oriental greens for stir-frying and to make Kimchee, but our Tatsoi greens are still looking and tasting great. In winter we enjoy the shiny dark green leaves in salads, stir-frys and soups. One interesting thing with the spotty germination on some of our early sowings is how large the plants can get in fall and still be sweet and tender.

creasy greens
creasy greens

Another favorite green for us and many others in our region are Creasy Greens and their cousin from grower Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds in the Northwest, Belle Isle Cress. They are lightly spicy and crisp in winter. Take care as they will naturalize if left in the garden to produce seed.

Let’s not forget Arugula, another winter salad favorite.

lettuce in the hoophouse at Twin Oaks
lettuce in the hoophouse at Twin Oaks

We also grow a lot of winter lettuce. I especially like red varieties for the deep color they develop in winter. Outredgeous and the Wild Garden Lettuce mix are favorites that have been joined by the heirloom Crawford, a Texas winter salad Lettuce.

We still have some winter roots in the ground: carrots, beets, salsify, parsnip and winter radishes. We have potatoes and sweet potatoes in storage.

Maybe we can look at what we still have canned, dried, fermented and frozen sometime soon. Until then enjoy your garden.

Tips for Direct Sowing in Hot Weather

Lisa Dermer & Ira Wallace

Last week we finished harvesting our spring-planted cabbage and broccoli. Now it’s time to sow our first seedling bed for our fall brassicas: besides cabbage and broccoli, we’ll add cauliflower and Chinese cabbage. Later we’ll make sowings of fall carrots, beets, lettuce, rutabaga, turnips, and greens like spinach, chard, kale, and mustards.

Sowing outdoors during high heat can be tricky, but if you follow these tips you’ll find it’s worth the effort:

1. Sow in a closely-spaced nursery bed and transplant later. This lets you concentrate your efforts (keeping the soil moist and weed-free) on a small, more manageable area. (Don’t do this for crops that don’t transplant well, like carrots.)

2. Choose a location with afternoon shade. This will protect the sprouting seeds from drying out.

3. Sow under lightweight row cover or the newer temperature-neutral proteknet. Both protect from insect pests and help retain soil moisture.

4. Sow successions! Two weeks after your first sowing make another planting of the same varieties or other, earlier-maturing types.

5. Count backwards. Plan for cool-season crops to mature when cool weather hits, and use the days to maturity to plan when to sow.

6. Transplant and/or thin your plantings. Giving plants more space helps their roots access enough moisture. Young seedlings grow faster in hot weather, so plan for quick turn-arounds. Summer-sown brassicas may be ready to transplant in 4 weeks or less (they should have 3 true leaves).

Check out our Fall and Winter Quick Reference for more details about timing and what to plant for fall and winter harvest.

Order now if you haven’t already reserved your planting stock for garlic and perennial onions. Each order comes with a Garlic and Perennial Onion Growing Guide to get you started.

Cover Crops for Great Green Manure, Mulch, and More

By Ira Wallace

Warm weather and late April rains have our fall-planted crimson clover, winter rye, and Austrian winter peas growing like weeds and just starting to bloom.  As an edible bonus, the winter peas gave an abundance of sweet pea shoots to add to salads all winter and spring. The bright red flowers of crimson clover provide much-needed pollen and nectar for pollinators and other beneficial insects in spring.

To select the best cover crops for your garden, consider which functions are your priorities, the time of year, and how long the cover crop will be in the ground. Cover crops are important tools all year for filling in gaps between crops while also preventing soil erosion, suppressing weeds, providing habitat for pollinators, and improving fertility. Some even provide an edible bonus, for you and for pollinators. Here are some cover crop favorites in the Southeast.

Winter Nitrogen Fixers – soil fertility out of thin air.

  • red-Clover-2-GryphonClover (crimson, white, and red Sow clover six to eight weeks before your average first frost date. Clovers fix nitrogen in the soil and thus boost nitrogen for next spring’s garden. Mow one or two times when about half of the crop is flowering. Allow the residue to decompose for at least two weeks before planting vegetables.
  • Hairy Vetch– Sow hairy vetch six to eight weeks before the average first frost date. This vine-like, vigorously-growing, cold-tolerant, winter-hardy, annual legume adds nitrogen and builds soil organic matter. Hairy vetch grows well in cereal grain mixtures and is an excellent spring weed suppressor.
  • Pea shoot and Brassica Flower xaladWinter Peas (Austrian)– Sow winter peas four to six weeks before the average first frost date. Sometimes called “black pea” and “field pea”, this is a cool-season, annual legume with good nitrogen-fixing capabilities. Usually planted with rye, oats, or barley to reduce the chance of winter kill. Cut and turn under at full bloom for maximum nitrogen.

Winter Soil Builders and Subsoil Looseners – for the surface or deeper down.

  • Winter Rye (Cereal Rye)
    Sow winter rye six weeks before the average first frost date and up to two weeks after. A cold-hardy crop, winter rye will grow well into the spring. Winter Rye increases soil organic matter as it decomposes. Mow one to two times when at least 12 inches tall, or when half of the crop has immature seed heads. Allow residue to decompose for at least two weeks before planting vegetables.
  • Oats – Sow oats eight to ten weeks before the average first frost date. Oats are killed by the hard frosts. They form a winter surface mulch, preventing erosion and increasing soil organic matter as they decay.

Edible Cover Crops

Traditional gardeners in the Southeast plant a big bed of winter greens (turnips,  mustards, kale, and collards) to keep the garden covered and provide fresh eating until spring.  Plant this beautiful edible greens cover crop in August or September to build organic matter and provide healthy meals all winter long. Try a mixture of the old Southern favorites and contemporary choices like Seven Top turnip, Lacinato kale, Red Russian kale, Southern Giant Curled mustard greens, and Tatsoi.

If you are in the upper South or in the mountains, cover your winter greens with row cover or plant in a cold frame for winter harvests. Left uncovered in cold winters, the leaves will be too damaged for good eating, but you’ll have fresh new growth in early spring if winter lows aren’t too bad.

For more reason to plant cover crops read our Cover Cropping for Unpredictable Weather

 

Warm Season cover crops and filling in the summer gaps

  • Sorghum-Sudan Grass hybrid Plant in spring and summer, beginning after the soil has warmed and up until six weeks before first frost. This hybrid is unrivaled for adding organic matter to worn-out soils. These tall, fast-growing, heat-loving summer annual grasses can smother weeds, suppress some nematode species, and penetrate compacted subsoil.

 

  • pink-eye-purple-hull-webSoybeans (Edamame) and Southern Peas (Cowpeas)
    Plant in early summer through mid-summer, between spring and fall crops. Mow before pods have formed or when pods are still green and have not matured. These legume family plants can fix nitrogen for an added bonus.
  • buckwheat-webBuckwheat
    Plant from spring through early fall when the ground will be open 5 weeks or more. Buckwheat establishes quickly, suppresses weeds and attracts pollinators. Mow one to two times when half the crop is in flower and before hard seeds have formed. Will be killed by frost.

Although fall through winter is the most common time when gardeners grow cover crops, savvy gardeners include summer cover crops in their garden plans. No matter which cover crops you choose or when you fit it in your garden rotation, cover crops allow you to grow your own nitrogen and organic matter in place.

When to Mow or Turn Under Cover Crops

A lot of factors go into determining the best time to turn under or at least cut down your winter cover crop. To get the most biomass, wait until half of the cover crop is in flower but make sure to get it cut down and incorporated before it goes to seed. Some freshly cut cover crops like winter rye inhibit seed germination for the following crop. If you are planning to direct seed allow 2 to 4 weeks for your cover crop to decompose before planting. This same property can be an advantage in weed suppression if the cover crop is just crimped or rolled and left as a mulch for transplanted tomatoes.

Another factor to consider is when you want to plant the next crop. For early spring plantings you may need to cut and turn in your cover crops well before flowering and allow a longer time (maybe 3 to 6 weeks) for the organic matter to decompose before planting. You can speed up decomposition of the cover crop 1 or 2 weeks by sprinkling in some mature compost or applying compost tea to add beneficial soil organisms before turning it under.

For most home gardens you can cut your cover crop with a hand sickle or scythe and add it to your compost. This leaves the considerable roots to add organic matter and aerate the soil. You can also weed-eat it or mow it and just let it lay there on the ground as mulch or till it in.  For the home gardener, Roto-tilling  is the fastest and easiest way to incorporate your cover crops, but you can also spade in your crop residues the old fashioned way. Digging in your covers crops aids in faster decomposition and less nitrogen loss into the atmosphere.