All posts by Lisa Dermer

Fall & Winter Garden Planning

Useful References from SESE: Our Fall & Winter Quick Guide lists specific varieties best suited to growing in the cooler months.  We also have on our website the Simple Winter Gardening Guide from Brett Grohsgal of Even’ Star Organic Farm and the Fall & Winter Gardening Guide by our own Ken Bezilla.

Collard Rows

If you thought it was time to sit back and enjoy the harvest, think again! Growing fall and winter crops means getting out now to get your plants started.

August and early September is the ideal time to start beets, kale, Chinese cabbage, daikons, collards, rutabaga, turnips, and mustard greens. You can also continue to sow carrot, lettuce, cilantro, arugula, and radish successions. We’ll sow spinach in mid-September, when cooler soil temperatures make germination easier. Bush snap beans can be started now, but you may need to protect them from October frosts (we use row cover) to get much of a harvest. It’s too late for all but those in the Deep South or with extended frost-free falls to sow cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.

While it may feel too early – and too hot – to be planning for the winter table, the rapid loss of sunshine in fall means we have to give these crops an early start.  Remember, we had our strongest sun already at the solstice in June – fall may feel warm, but it lacks the light intensity of summer.

Hot temperatures are great for quick growth, but some of the best fall crops are difficult to germinate in warm soils.  Young, shallow-rooted plants are also more vulnerable to drying out than older crops with deeper, more established root systems.  Remember to water frequently – germinating seeds may require watering twice daily, or more.

Red Sails Lettuce

One trick we use is to start kale, collards, and other transplant crops in closely spaced nursery rows in beds with some afternoon shade. We also like to use beds that are shaded by tomatoes and pole beans – plants that will be gone in a few months, just when we start needing all the light we can get on our fall crops.

For over-wintering crops, shade from nearby deciduous trees helps keep seedlings moist, and in the winter and early spring the same beds will get plenty of light.

It may be a struggle to get seeds to germinate in summer heat.  Be patient!  Wait for the break in the hot weather – it’ll come soon, we promise.  And remember there are some benefits – even the weeds are struggling to come up!

Lettuce, spinach and cilantro need cool temperatures to germinate. Start them indoors – or in the refrigerator! Pam Dawling at Twin Oaks sows nursery rows of lettuce on summer evenings outdoors under shade cloth, waters well and covers with an inch or so of crushed ice.

Heirloom Gardening for Biodiversity

We all know biodiversity is a good thing. But how does gardening with heirlooms promote biodiversity? And how can you garden with biodiversity in mind?

We think of biodiversity on three levels: genetic, species, and ecosystem. All three apply to your garden or farm, no matter its scale.

Heirloom Vegetable Genetic Biodiversity
Pungo Creek Butcher dent corn, Yellow Fleshed Moon & Stars watermelon, Cosmic Purple carrot
Genetic Diversity

  • Heirlooms may carry genes that provide disease resistance or other useful traits we don’t even know we need.  Preserving heirloom varieties maintains this “gene bank” as insurance against future plant diseases or other threats.
  • Genetic variation within a planting gives that crop resiliency to cope with the unexpected – we may lose some plants, but we can build stronger varieties by saving seed from those that survive. To maintain diversity within a variety, we save seed from a large number of plants.
  • Traditional plant breeding with open-pollinated (OP) varieties builds biodiversity by creating new genetic profiles with each generation.  It also allows us to explore unexpected mutations – with plants, mutations often aren’t bad.  A mutation is simply a shift in the genetic code, sometimes with unexpectedly good results.

Species Biodiversity Mixed Herbs and Vegetable Production
Mixed herb and vegetable production.
Species Diversity

Just growing a lot of different kinds of plants creates species diversity in your garden.  But you may not be aware of all the benefits you’re getting. Ecologists correlate species biodiversity with productivity. That means more diverse systems produce more biomass.  And that means more veggies for your table!

Many modern varieties are bred for monoculture conditions.  Heirlooms are already adapted to gloriously biodiverse, ecologically grown gardens, like those of our ancestors.

And biodiversity of one type, like the plants in your garden, tends to come along with increased biodiversity of other species, like beneficial insects and micro-organisms in your soil – which compete with or prey upon garden pests and help control their populations.

Tan Cheese Pumpkins
Tan Cheese and other Moschata types thrive where other winter squash succumb to pests and disease.
Ecosystem Diversity

Your garden is unlike anyone else’s.  Celebrate it!  Instead of trying to grow things that aren’t suitable for your garden, seek out what is uniquely adapted to where you live.  You may find that you don’t miss growing Buttercup winter squash – which may not handle pests in the Southeast – because you can grow sweet, long-storing Seminole pumpkins – which don’t produce well in areas with cool nights.

Rather than bemoaning a garden that doesn’t fit the commercial “ideal,” seek out the heirlooms that have been developed over generations, right where you live.  Ecosystem diversity creates what foodies call “terroir” – the food grown where you live is unlike food grown anywhere else.

Who is Gary Nabhan? Chile Peppers and Place Based Foods

habanero peppersThe authors of the new book Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail singled us out as a force working for the preservation of heirloom chiles in a recent interview on grist.org – Hot stuff: chile peppers, climate change, and the future of food. Authors Kurt Friese, Gary Nabhan, and Kraig Kraft (an ethnobotanist, a chef, and an agroecologist) examine climate change through the lens of the chile pepper. In another grist post, Nabhan writes about Global weirding and the scrambling of terroir.

We carry seeds for three of the chiles they track in the book – Habaneros (the Yucatan), Fish Peppers (Chesapeake Bay area) (sold out for this year), and Jimmy Nardello’s (from Italy via Connecticut). 

Gary Nabhan will be presenting at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival on the findings of the book.  You can download free booklets on Place Based Foods from his website. The most recent – Appalachia – From Rarity to Community Restoration and Market Recovery – features a piece on heirloom grinding corns of Appalachia by our own Ira Wallace, as well as articles on heritage apples, pawpaws, wild spring greens, traditional sweet potato curing, and Bill Best of Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center on the Noble Bean.