Archive for August, 2009

Turnip Plantin’ Time in Tennessee

August 26th, 2009
There are good reasons to plant turnips even if they arent on your list of vavorite vegies.

There are good reasons to plant turnips even if they aren't on your list of vavorite vegies.

Turnips will almost never be the answer to the question of  “What is your favorite vegetable?” so maybe the title of this article should be “Cover Crop Plantin’ Time in the Mid South”  but it just doesn’t have the same alliteration thing going on.  BTW, it’s the last week of August, and a few harbingers of fall are already apparent – goldenrod in bloom for example.

Anyway, your summer garden is looking disgraceful (you know it is) and it’s high time to put all of those disease and weed ridden plants out of their misery before you get a visit from the homeowners association.  Hopefully you are planning to grow a fall garden, but even so  some amount of ground  is probably going to be vacant once you tidy up – which is where cover crops come in.  Any good cover crop will suppress weeds, prevent erosion, improve the fertility / organic content of your soil, and in some cases even put food on your table.  One of the main things that cover crops do is to absorb soil nutrients into their tissues as they grow so that they don’t leach away during the rainy winter.  But (to me) the main reason to plant cover crops is that they save work, because all of those advantages are gained with no more effort than it takes to sprinkle a few seeds on the newly bared ground.

The most popular fall / winter cover crops in my area are: Turnips, Crimson Clover, and Annual Rye.  They are area favs for good reasons, and they all have their unique advantages.  Rye probably does the best job of suppressing weeds, and adds lots of organic matter to the soil when you work it in early next spring.  Crimson clover adds nitrogen in addition to organic matter.  Turnips main claim to fame is the fact that they also yield food – all winter long in some cases.  Ask around (at a farmers co-op for example) to find out what works best in your area.

Whichever cover crop you choose to sow buy your seed by the pound (at a farmers co-op or or Real Garden Center) unless your garden is awfully small a little paper packet isn’t going to be enough seed.  Anyway, a pound of turnip seed should only cost 3 dollars or so, will last just about forever in the freezer, and contains enough seed to plant the entire state of Rhode Island – it’s one of those things that you should just keep on hand.  If you keep them in an empty shaker bottle such as spices comes in it will be very convenient to just sprinkle about – a good tip for all kinds of salad green seeds.

The other thing you should do with any of these crops is to completely ignore the planting dirrections.  One of those little packets will tell you that you need to plant turnips 1/2″ deep in loose fertile  soil which has been enriched with lots of organic mater – which is true if you are hoping to win a ribbon at the fair, but for the purpose of a cover crop just sow your seed thickly (thin later with a hoe if you want to harvest roots)  on top of the ground after you have pulled the old plants and weeds.  You do need to use a rake or cultivating fork to break up any crust that you might have, and you will probably want to rake it out just to be neat – but that’s all.  The main thing is to throw those seeds down and everything else will take care of itself.  If you water one time after sowing the seeds you will probably see sprouts in 3-4 days.

But, you say “I’m planning on mulching/tilling/fertilizing/planting something else long before those cover crops will be done.”  Don’t worry about it – when the weather cools off and  you get ready to do any of those things just do it  – until then your cover crop will be improving your garden for you, and if you don’t get around to those things until next year it will look like you planned it that way.

This is one of the best times of the year to work in your garden – get out there!

Starting Cool Season Crops in the Heat of Summer

August 8th, 2009

There are any number of ways to get your cool season crops for your fall garden started despite the intense heat of August.  In fact some of them will be just fine direct seeded into the garden as long as you keep them well watered.  However, you will still have to contend with peak populations of insects.

This simple trick will protect your tender seedlings from the intense sun, while still letting in plenty of light, and keeping out the bugs.

You probably already have some of these mesh flat trays.

You probably already have some of these mesh flat trays - If you don't you can get them for cheap at most nurseries.

Just turn one upside down over your plants.

Just turn one upside down over your plants.

Then drape a pice of screen cloth over the top - you can buy this by the foot at any home center.

Then drape a peice of screen cloth over the top - you can buy screen by the foot at any home center.

You can weight down the edges of the screen cloth with boards or you can fold it under the flats.  You can also water right through the screen cloth.  You can even use this trick if you’ve direct seeded.  By the time your plants outgrow the inverted flats they will be big enough to survive the sun without the protection.

Try to pick an overcast day to remove the screen on if possible – otherwise do it in the afternoon when the sun has passed it’s highest intensity.  Remove the mesh tray a day or two later.

Time to Start Your Fall Vegetable Garden

August 3rd, 2009
Start right now and you can grow excellent fall vegetables in your garden while those around you grow little more than weeds.

Start right now and you can grow excellent fall vegetables in your garden while those around you grow little more than weeds.

August is here and it’s time to get busy planting your fall vegetable garden.  While your neighbor’s gardens start to look sad with weeds and failing summer crops yours can continue to be productive for weeks, months or even non stop from now on.

It’s hot now, but soon the weather will start to moderate, the bugs will start to thin out, and soil moisture will increase and garden tasks will become much more pleasant, but if you don’t act soon it will be too late for many crops.

In my area of zone 6 it’s still most likely 10 – 12 weeks until we start getting frost.  More than enough time for another planting of summer squash, green beans, cucumbers or (theoretically) even another round of tomatoes if you can procure plants that are ready to go.

Most years rain is the big issue for late plantings of summer veggies, but so far this year the only rain problem in my garden has been too much of it.  So I have my fingers crossed that I won’t have to water very often, but if you do have to water it’s far better to install soaker hoses or drip irrigation lines before planting if you can at all.  However don’t let that concern keep you from planting – sooner the better.

When the leaves are falling your fall garden will be growing and feeding your family nutricious cool season vegetables.

When the leaves are falling your fall garden will be growing and feeding your family delicious cool season vegetables.

Aside from one more round of summer vegetables the real reward of growing a fall garden will be all of the cool season plants that do well as the nights begin to cool.  All of the brassicas are great in the fall garden – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, Brussels sprouts, etc.  Here in the south it isn’t too late to start these from seed, but it also isn’t too soon to set out plants if you can get them – check your local farmers market, and online classifieds as well as nurseries, and garden centers.

Keep in mind that the cabbage family does best in cool weather, but they are not cold hardy.  Many of them will survive or even improve from a light frost, but you have to harvest them before a hard frost or freeze.  In our area the first few frosts are usually far between and the season can easily be extended by several weeks if you are prepared to cover tender plants for the first few frosts.

The first step in moving forward with this project is to yank out all of those failing plants that are just taking up space, and looking sad.  Don’t hang onto failing vines just because they might produce another squash or two.  Toss those things on the compost heap – unless they are diseased or infested in which case you should probably burn them as much as I hate to say it.

Once you free up some space you need to consult a calendar to decide what your planting options are.  Calculate the time left until your likely first frost date.

If you have 10 or more weeks left of reliably temperate weather you can still direct sow green beans, squash and cucumbers – but you need to do it immediately if not sooner.  You also still have time to plant cabbage and other brassicas from seed, but if your weather is hot like it is here you should probably do that indoors.  If you can find plants ready to set out you can go ahead and do so now and any time until about 8 weeks before frost.  large heading types may take longer to form heads so check the seed packages or even better talk to a local expert about which varieties to plant.

Here in zone 6 you can usually set out most brassicas until the end of August.

With 10 or more weeks until frost you can also direct sow beets, carrots, collards, lettuce, radish, garden peas, turnips, and potatoes.  Carrots are pretty much cold proof in our climate and will stay perfect all winter long in the ground so plant lots of carrots in your fall garden.

At 8 weeks until frost you can direct sow more lettuce, turnips, radish, arugula, and spinach.  A great thing about the fall garden is that once nights start to cool off your lettuce will stop trying to bolt, and you will be able to pick cool season salad greens throughout the fall from only a few plantings.

At about 6 weeks before frost it will be time to plant lettuce and spinach to establish in a cold frame, green house or other season extender.  This planting will feed you well into the winter in many areas.  When the weather gets really cold it will stop growing, but on fair sunny days growth will continue.  It’s pretty great to be growing fresh salad greens all winter long.  You can worry about building a cold frame or poly tunnel later if you don’t already have one, but get those seeds in the ground now!

You can grow fresh greens like lettuce and spinach all winter long in a simple cold frame, plastic row cover or green house.  For best results though you want to establish those crops in the fall while the weather is still warm.

You can grow fresh greens like lettuce and spinach all winter long in a simple cold frame, plastic row cover or green house. For best results though you want to establish those crops in the fall while the weather is still warm, and the plants can grow more quickly.

Be prepared to keep everything watered during the remaining weeks of hot summer weather, and also protect tender young plants from marauding insects – row covers are helpful for both of these things.

Growing a fall garden is a great way to make your garden much more rewarding so get out there and brave the summer heat for a while to get one going.  You’ll be glad you did.