Category Archives: Garden Advice

What to do when your greens bolt

Bolting greens have essentially decided – in response to heat, lengthening days, and any other stresses – that it’s time to make make seed, and to make as much seed as they can, using all the energy stored in their roots.  Though we can’t convince them to go back to making large, tender leaves again, we can reap other benefits from them, and we can extend our harvest windows with methods like succession planting.

Once this spinach had started to bolt, weeding it was no longer a priority for us. Luckily we had a later planting of spinach just coming on.  The younger spinach hasn’t been through as much cold, and so it will tolerate more heat than this planting before it bolts.  We also spread out the harvest from this patch by harvesting taller plants first, thus giving the shorter plants more room to grow outward.

In the process of bolting, lettuce becomes extremely extremely bitter.  By harvesting early in the morning – not many hours after sunrise – I find I can often still get good-tasting greens off of bolting lettuce, but the lettuce in this picture is simply too mature to harvest. The lettuce plants to the left are farther along in the bolting process than the plants to the right, probably because they’ve gotten more sun.  The cilantro in the background has also bolted, but its leaves still taste about the same as they did when the plants were younger.  The cilantro flowers and immature seeds are also edible, and mature cilantro seeds are coriander.

Our farm’s fall and winter vegetable garden from late 2014 now looks like a meadow. The bluish leaves and yellow flowers are kale.  These flowers feed bees, other pollinators, and sometimes people.  We’ve also been letting our cow graze at the edge of this garden-turned-meadow.

The mature, flowering stems of plants in the brassica family, including kale, collards, mustard, arugula, and cabbage, tend to be tough, and the leaves have a strong flavor that you might not like, though it’s not nearly as bitter as bolting lettuce.  But the the flowers themselves can make great additions to salads and great snacks in the garden.  I especially like arugula flowers in salads, but for this salad we used mustard flowers.

An organic no-till garden in South Carolina

Rodger Winn and his wife Karen grow seeds for Southern Exposure, as well as vegetables for themselves and for a local market, in their 1.25-acre garden in Little Mountain, South Carolina.  On our recent trip to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Greenville, SC, we stopped in to see their place.  The area had just had an unusually early frost and snowfall, so the summer crops were dead, but the fall garden was green and gorgeous.

Rodger showed us several seed crops, including Charleston Hot pepper and Charleston Gold rice.  (We haven’t gotten the rice seed from him yet; it’ll go up on our website after we do.) We also found his bean trellising quite interesting.  It uses thin fiberglass poles kept in place with wire from an old fence. The space under the poles is not very high, but it’s high enough for a person to crouch and pick beans in the shade.

But the most interesting part of seeing the Winn farm was Rodger’s description of how he uses clover and straw to smother out weeds so that he needs neither a tractor nor herbicides.  In fall, around the time of his first frost, he broadcasts Crimson Clover over his main garden area.

In spring, as he is getting ready to set out seedlings, he has 500 square bales of hay delivered, and spends one day covering the entire area with an 8-inch-thick layer of loose hay mulch.  He transplants most of his crops, including beans, melons, squash, and others that most gardeners and farmers would direct-sow.  However, he does direct sow some crops, including carrots, turnips, parsnips, and some greens, by raking back the hay to make a 6-inch-wide row, sprinkling compost, then sowing the seed and lightly raking over it. When the seed is up he pulls mulch up around the plants to limit weed growth.

Last year the Winns’ beans finished in August, drowned by a very wet summer, so he planted collards in the same row as the beans without pulling up the drip irrigation or the poles, as seen below to the left. That  January, he pulled up 40 of the best remaining collard plants and replanted them at the top of the garden, where they bloomed in late April of this year and produced seed, as seen below to the right.

For the Winns, going no-till is a great way to save time in the garden, as they don’t have to hoe or thin most of their crops, or ever bring a tractor into the garden.  They also don’t have to remove trellising and drip irrigation as often as farmers who till.  The method also builds great soil.  In 1998, the farm had hard red clay soil.  Now, while the subsoil is still hard red clay, the topsoil is a rich, dark loam created by sixteen years of nitrogen-fixing clover cover crops, ten years of thick, carbon-rich hay mulch, and three years holding nutrients in the soil by not tilling.

We’re excited to try out a system like Rodger’s on our own farm, but with many other projects on our plates, we’ll probably start it on a small section of our land, with hopes of expanding it to cover larger sections of our gardens in the future.

You can read more about Rodger and his love of heirloom seeds in Bill Best’s book Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste.

Extend your pepper season and preserve peppers

Last night at about 11:30 Ken alerted me that the forecasted low for our area was 36 degrees, meaning that we could easily get a light frost.  At midnight the two of us headed out to our gardens with a flashlight to cover our pepper trials, two of our pepper seed crops, and our purple hyacinth bean seed crop with tarps and garden blankets that had been left next to the crops since the last time we had a risk of frost.

Pepper plants in our trial pepper patch. One of the tarps we used to cover the patch is behind the plants.

I also turned on a sprinkler to water our Keystone Resistant Giant pepper seed crop and our Riesentraube tomato seed crop overnight. Contrary to most people’s intuition, a sprinkler can protect plants from a few degrees of frost if it is turned on before the temperature gets below 32 degrees and not turned off until after it gets above 32 again.

A few pepper plants, as well as what remains of our basil, squash, gourds, and beans, were left unprotected, as were most of our remaining tomatoes.  This morning at 8:00 I took a quick walk to see what was dead and what was alive.  I was sad to find abundant evidence of frost in the garden, including that the leaves of our Joe’s Round pepper plants were stiff with ice where they hadn’t been covered.  Our basil was also stiff, and it’s even a little more tender than most frost-tender crops. However, when I checked them again around noon, I found most of those leaves quite alive!  I’m guessing this means that dew on leaves of even very frost-tender plants can freeze without necessarily harming the leaves themselves.  We’ll probably get another good seed harvest from each of our pepper seed crops, and then, around the time of our first killing frost, a big harvest of green peppers for eating. Green peppers don’t have mature enough seed to expect a good germination rate.

Peppers can be slow to come into production, but once they do, they bear prolifically. The fruits keep well on the plants, and in your root cellar or fridge. They are also easy to preserve… more on that below.  So, abundant fall pepper harvest are generally well worth the effort of covering the plants on the first few frosty nights.

Our habaneros were planted late and were slow to start producing, but now they are bearing especially prolifically.

Other frost-tender crops also benefit from covering, including eggplants, tomatillosbeans, cucumbers, and both summer and winter squash.  If you have a cucumber patch that’s still going strong in the days before your first frost, cover for harvest season extension.  However, many crops are harder to cover due to their height.  Also, cold weather and short days slow many of them down a lot.

Preserving peppers is easy, and you have lots of options:

– They freeze well. Unlike most vegetables, they don’t even if need to be blanched (flash-cooked) first. Just cut them into strips or squares, bag them in freezer bags from your local grocery store, and pop them in the freezer.

– We’ve made a delicious roasted red pepper spread. It can also be frozen, and takes up less freezer space than unblended peppers. Just roast peppers and garlic in the oven at about 350 degrees until soft, then thoroughly blend with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and black pepper.

– Some of my friends absolutely love pickled hot peppers.  Lacto-fermented jalapeños have come out especially well for us.  You can also use them as seasoning in other ferments like kim chee.

Sliced red bell peppers with whole green hot peppers and coriander, almost ready for lacto-fermentation

– Dehydration is also a great option, especially if freezer space is scarce. If you have an electric food dehydrator, put at about 135 degrees. If you live in a dry climate, you can dry peppers outside, or string small, thin-skinned ones – like Aji Dulce (mild), Cayenne (hot), or Habanero (very hot) together and hang them in your kitchen or pantry to dry. On our farm, we dry peppers and other vegetables in our convection oven, set to the lowest possible temperature (about 160 degrees, actually lower than the lowest listed temperature on the dial). Dehydrated veggetables are best stored in airtight containers such as mason jars with two-piece lids.

– Homemade hot sauce is a great option.  Canning recipes abound.  Or, if you’d prefer to store your hot sauce in the refrigerator, you can forgo the recipe entirely and experiment with the ingredients you happen to have on hand.

– Hot pepper jam is a favorite of many, and sweet pepper jam is a great option, too.  One of the best jams I’ve made was tomatillos with a touch of Jalapeño peppers, at the rate of about one deseeded pepper per pint.  If I hadn’t already known the hot peppers were in it, I wouldn’t have guessed.

Those tarps and garden blankets will likely come in handy again later in the fall and in the winter, for covering greens on very cold nights.  For more on what fall and winter crops survive down to what temperatures, see our Fall and Winter Gardening Quick Reference.