Direct Sowing Roselle

Now that the hot weather has really begun to set in it’s time to focus on heat loving crops. While many people will be setting out peppers and seeding melons there’s another summertime crop that deserves a place in your garden, roselle. The roselle plant is a member of the hibiscus family grown for its flavorful calyxes (part of the flower). It’s not as showy as ornamental hibiscus varieties but it is extremely useful.

It offers a citrus flavor earning it another common name, the Florida Cranberry. Roselle can be used for candies, syrups, or jam but it’s probably best known for its use in making delicious, bright red tea called Red Zinger. The tea has more going for it than just being tasty though. Roselle has long been used to safely lower blood pressure and is full of vitamin C.

The young leaves and stems of the roselle plant can also be used as salad or cooked greens or be made into jam as well. The leaves are naturally high in pectin, prefect for jam.

While Roselle is technically a perennial it is extremely frost sensitive so here in Virginia (zone 7a) it’s grown as an annual. Roselle can be started early and transplanted, much like tomatoes, or it can be direct seeded during hot weather. It requires temperatures between 75°- 85°F to germinate but germinates readily outdoors making it an ideal candidate for direct sowing.

Roselle will do best in well-drained, fertile soil. Compost amendments are fine but beware of over-fertilizing. Too much nitrogen can cause it to put energy into growing a very large plant instead of many calyxes. Be sure to keep your roselle plants well weeded until they’re established and can shade out weeds by themselves.

Tips for Direct Sowing

  • Plant extra seeds and thin later choosing the best looking plants to keep. This will ensure you get a good crop of healthy, hardy plants.
  • Water, water, water! Do not forget to water your roselle especially while the seeds are germinating.
  • Watch the weather and make sure your area has warmed up enough!

If you’re going to direct sow and thin your plants (or have plants ready to set out) it’s important to give Roselle a lot of space. Plants should be thinned to 3 ft apart in rows 5 ft apart. It sounds like a lot but plants with less space will produce less calyxes.

Pests aren’t typically a big problem with roselle though it can be susceptible to stem and root rot. Both are easily avoided by planting in well drained soil and carefully monitoring watering to avoid over doing it.

Thai Red Roselle, the variety grown at Southern Exposure, should begin flowering in the mid summer. Calyxes can be harvested after the blooms drop off and are most easily harvested when full grown but still tender. If they’re not tender enough to break off by hand you can use clippers.

For high quality tea calyxes should be removed from the seed and dried out of direct sunlight. A dehydrator can be helpful especially in very humid weather. Once completely dry they can be stored in airtight jars for making tea throughout the year.

If you’d like to try your hand at growing roselle there’s still time to direct sow! Find Southern Exposure’s Thai Red Roselle seed here.

Sweet Potatoes From Order to Plate

Sweet potatoes are really underutilized in backyard gardens. They’re so easy to grow, nutritious, and tasty. They’re often overlooked and many believe that the store-bought and homegrown versions are virtually indistinguishable but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Store-bought sweet potatoes tend to be of a few hardy, orange varieties. While they’re absolutely still delicious there’s so much more variety to be had if you grow your own.

Just like other crops there’s sweet potatoes that are better suited to different growing conditions and cooking methods. The classic orange Beauregard is an excellent baker while the white fleshed O’Henry is one of our favorites for mashed potatoes. The Bunch Porto Rico has compact vines better for small gardens while the All Purple is especially hardy.

There are also dry and moist varieties. Dry varieties tend to be starchier and are more like regular potatoes. Some people consider them to be more versatile. Moist varieties are often sweeter and usually are the ones you find at the grocery store.

Choosing a variety can be tough so it may be wise to try a mix. Southern Exposure has two mixed packages available.

Bed Preparation

Sweet potatoes thrive in loose, well drained soil. If you have heavy soils it’s a good idea to work in a lot of compost and maybe even broad fork your garden bed before planting. To help with drainage you can grow sweet potatoes in raised beds, ridges, or hills.

Sweet potatoes also prefer warm temperatures and a relatively long season. Using black plastic mulch to help heat up the soil may be a good idea for those in cooler climates.

Surprisingly sweet potatoes don’t require especially fertile soil. In fact using chemical fertilizers often leads to tiny potatoes and huge vines. Simply adding some compost before planting is more suitable.

Planting

Unlike regular potatoes, sweet potatoes cannot be planted using seed potatoes. You need to use slips. Slips are the eyes on sweet potatoes. These are grown and then broken off to be replanted.

Note: for information on saving sweet potatoes and growing slips for next year check out our growing guide.

Slips should not be planted until 3-4 weeks after your last frost date. They’re very susceptible to frost. They should be planted 2-3 inches deep with their leaves above the soil. The slips you receive may or may not have grown roots already but they’re fine to plant either way.

Sweet potatoes have large sprawling vines and require quite a bit of space. You can plant sweet potato slips 10-18 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Water them the evening after you plant them and be sure to keep them moist for the next few days as they get established.

Care

Sweet potatoes should be mulched soon after planting. If you’re in a warm area where black plastic isn’t required straw or old leaves can be used. This will help keep the soil moist and block out weeds. Until they’re large it’s a good idea to keep them well mulched or weeded occasionally to keep weeds from overtaking them.

While sweet potatoes don’t like to be soaked (too much water can cause rotting) they do better with consistent waterings especially in dry areas. Too little water can lead to splitting and poor yields.

Pests & Diseases

Sweet potatoes can be affected by a number of pests like sweet potato weevils and diseases. The best way to combat them is purchasing healthy disease free slips, using simple crop rotation, and through maintaining healthy soils.

They’re also a favorite of deer so make sure you fence them off or cover them with netting.

Harvest & Curing

Aside from the potato itself the sweet potato shoots can also be harvested for cooking greens throughout the season. Just ensure you don’t take too much and kill the plant. 

Choose a dry, sunny day to harvest your potatoes. It will make both harvesting and curing much easier. Potatoes can be dug whenever they’ve reached an ideal size. It is best to harvest them all before the temperature dips below 55°F. Any lower temperatures can harm their storage capability.

Use a garden fork to lift them from the soil before collecting them by hand. Be careful and try to avoid nicking or damaging the potatoes. You may have to search a bit as they can grow up to 1 ft away from the plant itself. Sweet potatoes should be dried before any excess dirt is shaken off. Do not wash them, they don’t store well when washed.

For the first 7-10 days they should be kept at about 85°F and 90% humidity to cure. Then they can be stored at about 55°F in a dry, dark, well-ventilated area. Colder temperatures will affect their flavor so don’t refrigerate them until they’ve been cooked.

Any sweet potatoes with nicks or bruises will not keep well and should be used up first. You should regularly check you potatoes in storage and remove any bad ones as needed so they don’t spoil the whole crop. Properly cured sweet potatoes stored under the right conditions will keep 5-12 months.

Summertime Sweet Potato Ideas

If you still have have sweet potatoes in storage from last years garden (or are now craving them) there’s a couple simple ways to cook them even in the summer heat. Unlike in the autumn where I don’t mind baking them and heating up the house, in the spring and summer I typically cook sweet potatoes outside.

The simplest method is to clean them, poke a few holes in them, and wrap them whole in tinfoil before popping them onto a grill or into the coals of campfire. Alternatively they can be thinly sliced and wrapped in tinfoil packages with slices of onions, other veggies, and seasonings. All the ingredients should be drizzled in oil oil and the edges of the foil should be rolled or folded tightly to avoid leaking. Then they can be cooked just like the whole potatoes they’ll just cook much quicker.

Sweet potatoes truly are a wonderful crop. They’re high in vitamins and their storage ability makes them great for people looking to lessen their dependence on a global food system. It’s not too late to order slips! Try one of our productive varieties in your garden this summer.

What’s your favorite sweet potato variety?

Succession Planting 101

Ever wonder how your favorite local farm stand manages to have so much variety for such a long period of time? Farmers use succession planting to maximize their harvests and provide a wide variety of vegetables for a long season.

Succession planting is when you stagger plantings or plant multiple crops in the same area throughout the season. Each time a crop is finished you pull it and plant a new one. This allows commercial growers to reap large, continued harvests.

It’s not just for farmers though! Succession planting is super easy and great for backyard gardeners too. With a little extra planning you can get more production for your existing garden space.

Getting Started

Choosing Varieties

Almost any crop can be succession planted but different crops are succession planted for different reasons and offer different results.

Plants like corn, broccoli, and cabbage are often planted in successions to achieve more than just a single harvest. Many people also choose to plant successions of summer squash and cucumbers as just a few plants can produce a massive amount at their height of production.

Radishes, swiss chard, green onions, and carrots are great for planting multiple successions or sneaking in between plantings of other crops. They’re quick to grow and favored by urban gardeners and farmers.

Cool season crops are also good choices as they can be planted in the early spring or fall when hot weather crops won’t be taking up space in your garden.

Additionally you can select multiple varieties of crops with different harvest times. For example Golden Acre Cabbage takes just 62 days to harvest while Premium Late Flat Dutch is 100 days to harvest. Plant a little of both at the same time for different harvests.

Check out this post by Ira Wallace for more awesome ideas!

Planning

Succession planting is most successful when you have a good solid plan. To start you’ll need to know which crops you want to grow, their days to harvest, and the length of your growing season. Here at Southern Exposure we’re in zone 7 and have roughly 180 frost free days, plenty of time to get multiple successions of many crops.

Once you have these details you can start organizing your plantings. You’ll want your garden layout and a calendar or datebook. Alternatively you can try out the Southern Exposure Garden Planner.

Using your knowledge and tools you can judge the general times specific crops will be harvested and which one can be grown next in their place. To help avoid disease, pest, and nutrient issues avoid replanting the same crop in the same space.

If you’re not interested in a written plan just remember each time crop is harvested a new crop is planted. On the Facebook page we’ll continue to have what to plant this week guides which can help you decide which crops you should replant throughout the summer.

Example Combinations for Zone 7A

Staggered Planting

Succession planting can be tough especially if you’re someone who has huge springtime garden dreams but gets so busy by midsummer you barely remember where you planted the what let alone find time to harvest. Surprisingly succession planting can also help you keep your garden manageable.

One of the easiest ways to start succession planting is simply to not plant an entire crop all at once. For example if you want to have a bunch of sweetcorn throughout the summer rather than a single harvest simply plant a few rows every two weeks. This method is great for people who want to enjoy fresh produce but don’t necessarily have time to put up a large harvest. Of course you’ll need to be aware of your days to harvest and first frost date ensuring you give all your crops enough time to fully mature.

Cool Season Crops

Cool season crops are another great option especially for those with hot summers. Many plants like turnips, pak choi, arugula, and lettuce that prefer cool whether can be sown early in the spring and again in the late summer or early fall in order to reap a second harvest. In the summer, heat loving crops can take their place in the garden.

It sounds awesome but sowing crops late in the season in order to get a fall harvest can be tricky. For fall crops it’s important to keep the soil as cool and moist as possible if your planting in the heat of summer. Check out Tips for Sowing in Hot Weather by Lisa Dermer & Ira Wallace for more information. 

You can also extend these crops’ season even further through the use of cold frames , hoop houses, and row covers.

Fertility

It’s important to note that growing more crops in the same space throughtout the season will use more nutrients. You’ll need to be careful not o over-tax your garden. Consider the use of crop rotation, cover crops, compost amendments, and homemade liquid fertilizers to meet your plants nutrient requirements.

All of these are fairly easy to achieve at home and can make your garden more productive while saving you money on pricey store bought garden amendments.

No matter why you got into gardening succession planting can help you turn things up a notch. You can use it to have less overwhelming harvests, enjoy more of your family’s favorite vegetables, grow more food, and even extend your growing season.

What’s your favorite crop for succession planting? Tell us in the comments!

Saving the Past for the Future