fall vegetable garden planning, with katie spring
OOPS! The lettuce that was succulent, sweet and gorgeous a week ago just stood up in bold protest, doubling in size and turning bitter, and the last spring spinach bolted. Out they go. My shorter snap and shelling peas are pooped. So what’s next—besides empty stretches of soil? What’s next is officially called succession sowing, and organic farmer Katie Spring shared her harvest-stretching tips for a fall bounty with me.
We should be doing “successions,” or new sowings, all along during the growing season in our edible gardens, but it’s never more important than right now, especially up North where Katie and I garden. As summer comes on strong, we need to focus on continued vegetable and herb harvests through fall frost or even beyond. But what, and when?
Katie Spring and her husband, Edge Fuentes, make their living eking out every possible week of deliciousness and productivity–even in Zone 4 Northern Vermont. Katie also works part of the year with my friends at High Mowing Organic Seeds, as if she is not busy enough with CSA and wholesale clients, farm animals, and family at the couple’s GoodHeartFarmstead, 9 miles north of Montpelier (photo above of their seed house and part of the garden).
Before we start on sowing: a little background on Good Heart Farmstead. Katie and Edge met at Calypso Farm in Alaska, a non-profit educational farm outside of Fairbanks. They eventually moved to Katie’s home state of Vermont, where they are now farming their own land (seen hoeing in midsummer last year in the top photo, before their son was born, and again below, with Waylon and a baby lamb). They raise heritage sheep, pigs, and chickens—and working toward a no-till style of land management.
Good Heart’s business structure is special, too: It’s an L3C, or limited-profit or low-profit liablility corporation—“sort of a mix between a non-profit and for-profit business, a for-profit but with a social mission in the forefront,” says Katie. “We really work on increasing access to food for low-income Vermonters.”
My chat with Katie on the latest radio show (listen in now) ranged from how to make a planting calendar, to what crops to sow in summer and how—including tricks for making a hospitable seedbed for the new babies, when soil is hot and dry. Hint: Sometimes starting indoors, then plugging in seedlings, is best.
our succession-sowing q&a
Q. I do a simple, informal succession “math” in my head, Katie, I guess—like I make a list of 9 things I want to grow and count 4 things that are almost ready to pull and try to make matchups between the square feet and the wishlist crops. You are more organized, and actually make a calendar of your beds for the season.
A. We try to do as much planning in late winter or spring as possible. We make a calendar of what we want to harvest each week (because we have a weekly CSA to deliver to customers), and then we start looking at days to maturity for those crops, and what will be direct-seeded or transplanted.
From there a garden map will start to take shape, based on what will need to go in first and come out first.
This year we got a really great book called “The Market Gardener” by Jean-Martin Fortier, a grower in Quebec, who has a great crop-planning chart. With that inspiration, we took each section of our garden and broke it up into a graph [an example of “Bed A” from their Excel document is in the image below], and filled in all the first successions, and then filled in what would go in after with the date—and whether it would be transplanted (we’d put a TP next to it), and so on, including any cover crops.
Q. So I do my “math” informally, but you do yours on a grid—with goals based on delivering to customers. Even as a backyard gardener I could say, “I know I want to can tomatoes, so I have a leave X space starting on a particular date, and I need to start them indoors X weeks before that.” I could make a proper calendar like yours—and indicate how to use that area until tomato time, and after.
Q. In the later sowings, like now, after the longest day has passed and the days slowly get shorter, how do you adjust for that? Things grow differently than in spring, no?
A. What I learned at High Mowing is what we call “The Fall Factor.” As the days grow shorter, you add time to the days to maturity on the seed packet.
If you’re going based on your first frost date, you can basically add two weeks to the time that crop will take to reach maturity.
Q. So with a 60-day something-or-other, you’d basically make it like a 75-day crop, and count back that long from frost?
A. It is hard to get it exact. A lot is trial and error, experimenting. Every season throws its own variables in the mix, so we only have this as a guideline. I like to err on the side of maybe starting things a little bit earlier, but you don’t want to be so early that things start to bolt in the heat.
There is a little wiggle room, but as you get closer you want to work in that Fall Factor.
Q. You say “bolt,” and at this time of year, unlike spring, you’re working in hot, dry soil, and also fighting the heat when the seedlings come up. How to cope? Put burlap or corrugated cardboard over the moistened seedbed? Water deeply before sowing?
A. Both of those things are great—and on our scale, when we’re trying to have four to eight beds ready to be seeded at the same time, there are a couple of different strategies.
One, larger than a burlap bag, is to get heavy black plastic tarps, and put them over the bed for a week or so—or even longer if you want to hold that space for later planting.
The soil doesn’t like to be open, which is why you see weeds come up; the soil naturally wants to be covered. If you cover it with a tarp it allows those weed seeds to germinate, but when it doesn’t have the light they will then die. When you take it off, you have a seedbed ready to go.
If we just have a bed or two ready to go, we will seed, and water, and cover it with Reemay row cover that the sun can come through, and we’ll water right through the Reemay.
With carrots and things like that that take a little longer, we make sure we keep it watered, but once they’re up and tiny, we do make sure that the soil doesn’t get hard and crust over. You can use a collinear hoe or a hand hoe, and go up and down the row between the carrots. Keeping the soil agitated will keep it from crusting over and also allow any rain to sink in.
Q. So let’s go through some crops—I know you do a lot of greens, both salads and Asian greens and kales.
A. We have a specific salad mix that we use during the summer that’s all lettuces, and at the same time we’re seeding individual Asian greens because we like to create our own salad mixes with the Asian greens and lettuce.
The lettuce mix grows slower than the Asian greens, so we plant successions of both every two weeks—but slightly off from each other.
If we want to harvest them all at the same time, you have to pay attention to days to maturity again, and adjust for what’s faster-growing.
Q. So we can also sow Asian greens and lettuces and arugula, too, now, and kale, right?
A. Yes, both. Kale I love because you can harvest it at some many different stages: baby kale, full-sized kale, and I really like teen-age sized kale, too—so some successions will be harvested at different times, for different purposes, from salad to braising and so on.
Q. We can also sow kale relatives like cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage now—but shall I start them in flats?
A. We do, and a big reason is space: To get the most out of the garden we start as many things inside as possible, so we can pack things in closer. And you don’t have to worry about that seed bed crusting over.
Q. Plug holes and don’t waste any space. I get it. And what about cucumbers, and summer squash—maybe both of those as bush types for late sowing now?
A. Yes. It’s great to have slightly later cucumbers, which seem a little more special, and we do a lot of herbs, too—cilantro we seed every two weeks, and dill successions so we have those nice flower heads later when you’re ready to pickle, and dillweed all along.
We do a lot of basil again now, too, both for fresh bunches and then processing as pestos, for our winter CSA.
A. With later bush beans, you give yourself more time to preserve if you’re interested–like dilly beans, or any freezing off of that succession.
Q. Beets, chard, carrots, radishes can go in now, too—and spinach likes the end of the season, the cooler weather.
I think if you really hurry you can even grow a short-season corn now, too, even up North here.
A. At least for the next week or so, yes.
Q. And then of course there are a couple of things I almost forget to leave room for when I do my summer successions—my fall crop of peas that I put in in July, and….
A. …the garlic. A lot of the heat-loving crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, or eggplants are pretty much done by October for us, and the garlic can follow them.
more about succession sowing, and katie spring
- the Good Heart Farmstead website
- Katie Spring’s personal writing blog
- my succession-sowing “math,” and more succession how-to can be found at this link
- this story includes some pdf guide links for succession-sowing timetables in other states and regions
- the High Mowing Organic Seeds blog has a new fall-planting story, and a seed giveaway through July 4, 2013; learn, and enter, at this link
some things to try sowing for fall harvest
FROM YEAR TO YEAR, I choose among many different summer crops, including these:
- Arugula, from 21 to 40 days (baby or mature leaf size)
- Bush beans, about 60 days (have insulating fabric ready if early cold threatens)
- Beets and beet greens
- Braising greens mix (mustard, kale, collards, Asian greens…)
- Broccoli raab, about 40 days
- Broccoli (60 days from transplants started about 15 weeks before first frost; do try ‘Piracicaba,’ whose florets are looser, delicious, and which easily produces lots of side shoots)
- Cabbage (60 days from transplants started about 15 weeks before first frost) or Napa cabbage (about 10 days faster)
- Carrots (a storage kind like ‘Rolanka’ plus some smaller types for fall eating)
- Cauliflower (60 days from transplants started about 14 weeks before frost; needs covering if frost threatens)
- Chicory, endive, radicchio
- Collards, about 60 days but nice as a baby green
- Cucumbers (bush type rated 60 days; I sowed these June 15)
- Daikon (60 days) and other faster radishes
- Kale, about 60 days but nice in half that time as a baby green
- Lettuce, leaf and head type and mesclun mix, about 30 days to first cutting
- Mustard greens, about 45 days (faster as baby greens to spice a salad)
- Peas, shelling, sugar snap, and snowpea type
- Scallions and other hardy bunching onions, for fall use and to overwinter for spring
- Squash, summer variety, bush type (I sowed a 48-day variety July 1)
- Turnips, 40-50 days, faster for greens, or rutabaga (90 days) if sown in earliest July or late June here; rutabaga
- And don’t forget: Leave room for your garlic! It goes in around October locally, and stays till the next July or August. How to grow garlic, my favorite crop of all.
prefer the podcast?
KATIE SPRING was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The June 30, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
(Many photos courtesy of Katie Spring.)