Succession Planting Warm-Season Crops for Hot Summers

by Ira Wallace

When I was growing up in north Florida in the 1950s, my grandmother was always sowing seeds, every month of the year. About once a month throughout the summer she would seed more cucumber, cantaloupe, zucchini, and summer squash, plus three different types of sweet corn. Where summers are hot, humid, and long, smart gardeners don’t sow warm-season crops just once: we keep our kitchens supplied all summer with fresh, productive plants in our gardens.

Optimizing your garden plan takes time getting to know your garden. Keep records of how long each crop takes to mature and how quickly production drops off. This won’t be the same in June as it is in August, so keep good records for each planting. The goal is to develop a garden schedule with first and last planting dates for each crop.

Gardeners in the Deep South will want to take a planting siesta: a break from planting during the hottest, driest part of the summer, from mid-July through August. Calculate back from the average first frost date to decide when to make your last sowing.

Here’s a quick guide to planning your summer successions:

Sweet Corn: Why plant 3 different varieties of sweet corn? Choosing types with different maturity times spreads out your harvest. You could plant a single corn variety once a week, or you could plant 3 different varieties (that mature a week apart) just one time. Then you only have to sow once a month, or when the last crop is 2-3 feet tall, for continuous harvests all summer. Our last planting here in central Virginia is in mid-July: 90 days before first frost is a good margin.

Snap Beans: Make a new sowing of snap beans when the plants from the previous sowing develop their second set of true leaves (or when the "sprawling" plants begin to "stand up.") We sow beans every 2-3 weeks throughout the summer, stopping 50-60 days before the average first frost. Be prepared to use row cover to protect your last crop from frosts.

Summer Squash and Zucchini: Sow new summer squash and zucchini about once a month through July, beginning 2 weeks after your average last frost. For your last sowing, leave at least at least 60 days before your average last frost. Insect pests are generally worst for these crops during the hottest months, so late sowings actually have an advantage. You can keep the plants covered with row cover until the flowers begin to open, and by the time you uncover the plants to allow for pollination, the weather will have cooled and the pests have usually let up. (We find that moschata-type Tromboncino summer squash is actually hardy enough to be productive all summer long, so we don’t need to plant successions of this variety.)

Cantaloupe and Muskmelon: We find that doing 2 plantings, an early planting after danger of frost has past and another at least 90 days before last frost, is just right for our needs. If you really love your melons, you can stretch the season further by starting a 3rd, extra-early planting indoors, about 3 weeks before the average last frost. Grow the plants up trellises to save space in your garden.

Cucumber: We generally make 2 cucumber plantings, just as with muskmelon and cantaloupe. You can also push the season with a 3rd extra-early transplanted crop. If saving space is a concern, trellis your cucumbers.

Tomatoes: Most home gardeners don’t bother with tomato successions because indeterminate varieties will continue bearing up until frost (look for Southern-adapted heirlooms that specifically mention this characteristic). However, the plants tend to produce smaller fruits as the season goes on, and production does drop off. If you want to still have large slicers at the end of summer, try starting a couple plants later in the season, leaving at least 90 days before your average first frost. (Gardeners in the Deep South grow 2 crops, one in the spring and one in the fall.)

Cilantro: It’s easy to grow cilantro in cool weather, but in hot weather it doesn’t last, so during the summer months we plant cilantro once a month. Cilantro has trouble germinating in hot soil, but we love cilantro for salsa, so we give it extra attention: we chill the seed in our fridge or freezer for a few days, sow the seed in the evening in a shady spot, water it in with cold water, then cover the soil with burlap, cardboard, or a board for 5-7 days until the seedlings emerge.  (Lift the covering promptly once seedlings emerge, otherwise grasshoppers and other bugs will start feasting on the tender sprouts!)

Some warm-season crops should only be sown once. These are either very long season vegetables or crops that stay productive even under stress. One planting of okra is usually enough to last all summer. Field corn (popcorn, flour corn, flint corn, and dent corn) should only be sown once – these longer season corns need more time to dry on the ear. Other crops that don’t benefit from additional plantings include: roselle, runner beans, winter squash and pumpkins, malabar spinach, and peanuts.

Hedging with Heirloom Okra

hill country heirloom red okraThanks to Adrian Higgins for highlighting our okra in his great "tip of the week" for growing edible, ornamental okra hedges! You may want to try mixing and matching plants of different colors and heights, for a living display of the incredible diversity of heirloom okra.

From The Washington Post:

Tip of the week

Provide a decorative and useful edge to the vegetable garden with a row of okra plants. Sow seeds now and thin after germination so plants are spaced 18 inches apart. Plants can grow as high as seven feet, depending on variety. Soak seeds overnight before planting to speed germination. Apart from local garden centers, a good source of okra seeds is Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (540-894-9480,www.southernexposure.com).

— Adrian Higgins

Culinary Historian Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene Project: Southern Discomfort Tour

The Discomfort Tour

We love food historian Michael Twitty’s Afroculinaria blog. Michael brings out the hidden food history of African Americans, who were the real cooks and gardeners to the reknowned hosts and hostesses of the South. Michael points out that many African Americans can trace their family histories through many generations, and that the food and seeds those families maintained is a big part of that.

Plus, he’s a crazy good cook over an open fire!

Now Michael’s embarking on The Cooking Gene Project: Southern Discomfort Tour. This May through July, he’ll be traveling the South, from Maryland to Louisiana, exploring these culinary traditions. We hope you’ll consider joining us in supporting the project through the fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo.

Michael Twitty Hauling CottonA Southern Meal

Michael Twitty sent us some words about the project:

From the Ground Up: Growing a New Future with The Cooking Gene Project: Southern Discomfort Tour  

When I first started working on early African American food culture and recreating that culture through culinary history and living history reinactments I stumbled upon a "little" company devoted to preserving, promoting and marketing the edible antiques of the Southern pantry.  Ten years ago I didn’t know what an "heirloom" was, I just knew my Grandfather grew some "old time" watermelons down on his farm in South Carolina, or that my Grandmother had an envelope with collard seeds behind when she left this world.  That was about it.  Then I wanted to re-create how enslaved people ate—and Home Depot’s garden department wasn’t cutting it.  Working on a project where I thought to recreate enslaved people’s gardens, I hit upon a new path–I had to grow what they grew or close to it–and I had to figure out how to cook it when it came to harvest.  Enter Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. 

Ten years later I’ve had the opportunity to develop my message and my approach to teaching about early African American foodways and their impact on our culinary history and gardenways.  Every day presents new lessons and insights from the distant past.  Now I am embarking on a journey to the Deep South to look for more heirlooms, to encourage community gardens and farmers to grow more African American heirlooms, to promote racial reconcilliation and healing and to find out more about my enslaved Ancestors.  The Cooking Gene Project blends contextual genealogy, heirloom gardening, culinary history and social justice into one cohesive project that looks at the impact of enslaved African Americans on Southern/American culinary history while looking at the long term influence and legacy and what it means for our contemporary best practices in food, community development, health and spirit.  Having been an Edna Lewis Lecture guest speaker for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and a three time presenter at the Southern Exposure Heritage Harvest Festival, discussion with fellow heritage-food enthusiasts have fermented into a project like this where we look back in order to move forward.  I hope in being able to trace my Ancestors experience through food I can encourage others to do so and help bring us all to a greater understanding of our common culinary DNA. 

Our team could really use your help.  We only have a few days left to reach our funding goal.  By visiting our Indiegogo page we hope you will consider contributing to our campaign.  This year’s Heritage Harvest Festival will benefit from the project with a special class on using heirloom gardening to promote contextual genealogy.  We want to teach people how to use food to trace their roots–no matter what their background!  The past ten years have been just the start of a larger learning and sharing experience and we have so enjoyed learning with and from our friends at SESE and growing the plants that teach people about our heritage while making a way for a better future for all.  Please be sure to visit our campaign site and contribute whatever you can.  Our project is the only one of its kind and we hope if you follow us on the blog you will join us for some of our "Southern Discomfort Tour!"

Saving the Past for the Future