sow what now? growing a fall garden and saving seed, with ken greene
SOW NOW WHAT? My friend Ken Greene likes to say that at key junctures in the growing season, like when summer really comes on. Sow now what, as in what to sow now in the vegetable and herb garden to either extend the season as spring crops fade, or to get started if circumstances such as weather, woodchucks or who knows what conspired against earlier efforts.
This year, I’m late, late, late—and I’m conveniently blaming circumstances beyond my control. After frozen ground in April, no rain for three-plus weeks in May, and a June of incredible deluges, some of my best-laid plans aren’t looking so swell. Maybe you’re in the same situation. With all the upside-down spring weather that made headlines around the nation, I suspect it’s not just me who fell “behind.” There’s still time for a positive outcome.
Ken (below, saving tomato seed), founder of Hudson Valley Seed Library catalog and an organic seed farmer, joined me on the public-radio show and podcast to talk about planting for late summer into late fall harvest (think: pea-shoot salad, a succulent fresh batch of basil and more), and about seed saving.
Read along, or listen in to our conversation, the July 13, 2015 edition of my show, using the player below, or at this link.
my q&a with ken greene
Q. So, how are you?
A. [Laughter.] Well, I’m about the same as you, and a little bewildered that there’s sun today.
Q. The monsoon has lifted; we can put the boats away; no rowing.
A. For today.
Q. Our topic might be for people whose early crops are petering out, or it might be for people who didn’t get started because of weather—or for whatever reason. Let’s start with some basic succession-sowing discussion.
A. I think one of the things that has gotten people confused about July in their gardens and this idea of succession sowing is that a lot of times we talk about planting for fall, and fall harvests, and I think in people’s minds they think that means they’re planting the things in fall.
Q. It sounds so far away.
A. Really, it’s now that we’re planting everything for fall harvest.
Q. We should say, since there are people listening all over the place, that we’re in Zone 5B in the Hudson Valley area of New York. I’d normally plant peas around the beginning of April and harvest them in the second half of June, for instance. So if I wanted peas again for fall, I’d have to start again a couple of months earlier than my desired fall harvest date.
A. It’s just like when you make your garden plan for spring, and you say, “How many days till harvest?” On your seed packet it will say, “65 days,” for instance, or “100 days to harvest,” and you think, “When do I have to plant these seeds so there’s enough time for the plant to mature in the season I have wherever I live?”
The same thing is happening now, except the numbers are a little different. You’re looking at that 65 days till maturity, and you’re counting back and you’re thinking, “OK, I have until August to plant this.” But really, because the days are getting shorter and the temperature is changing, you actually need to add, say, two weeks to that number on your seeds pack: to count back 65 days plus two weeks, for example, in order to give that plant enough time to mature before your first frost date.
Q. So the 65-day plant is a 79-day plant. And the other thing we should say: If you want to harvest a couple of weeks from those bush beans or whatever you’re planting, don’t literally count back from that frost date, but maybe even give yourself a little more wiggle room, so you can enjoy more of the harvest before frost shuts you down.
A. Yes, the weather doesn’t always cooperate with the dates. [Laughter.]
Q. Have you noticed that, Ken? I never knew that.
A. You do need a little wiggle room, in case that first frost comes earlier than you told it to.
Q. This isn’t all to do just at this moment—we’re not going to suddenly create an entire fall garden today. It’s planting a staggered number of things, just like in the spring—the way you plant your spinach before your tomatoes.
A. However you plan you garden for the spring, even if you weren’t thinking about succession sowing, it kind of determines what you can be doing. Most of us have limited space. It’s not like we’re going to open up a whole new garden next to our garden. It’s really about what beds are opening up; it’s a natural progression.
Q. So, for example, if I’m going to take my garlic out in a few weeks: What’s a good thing that could be able to use that 20-by-5-foot bed, that could mature from the end of July to my frost time?
A. And with garlic, you don’t have to think about the rotation, because you’re not going to plant more garlic in there right now. But you could put in a lettuce mix, and have great salads and baby lettuces. You could put in peas, and harvest them for eating as pea shoots.
Q. Tell me about: You always mention pea shoots on the Seed Library blog. Do you grow certain varieties for that purpose, or do you harvest the tender young shoots of any variety, or what?
A. Honestly for us it’s about thinning. A lot of times we oversow our peas to make sure we have good germination and have as many pea plants as we want. The ones we’re thinning out, we thin when they’re pretty young, and they’re delicious.
Pea shoots taste like snap peas—they have that same bright, fresh, invigorating flavor. They’re great in salads, and we even sometimes make just a pea-shoot salad, with some dressing.
Q. So those are your greens.
A. Yes. A lot of people just grow for peas shoots, and when you do that, you can actually sow very densely, and they’ll all come up together. You harvest them the same way you do baby greens, where you’ve planted that dense mat of lettuce and you go through and cut them all an inch above the ground. You can do that with the pea shoots, when they’re 3 inches or 4 inches tall. When they get too big, the stems get tough.
They germinate fast, they grow fast, and you’ll have good fresh eating so quickly in those empty beds.
Q. So with the peas we could do that with some of the seeds we have left over from our spring planting, and we could also grow peas. I usually grow all my shelling peas as my fall crop, to put in the freezer in bags to use in winter. In the spring I grow mostly edible-podded peas to eat fresh, which I’m eating the last of right now.
So I could do a thick row for shoots, and a row for full-grown peas as well, whether shelling or snap types.
A. In a similar vein there are a lot of other things that maybe you look at the days to maturity and think, oh, it’s August, this bed just opened up and that’s not enough days when I add the two weeks. But so many things can be eaten much earlier in their life cycle than that days to maturity.
You don’t have to grow that heading lettuce to maturity; you can use it as a leaf lettuce. Carrots: you don’t have to let them fully mature, because baby carrots are delicious.
Q. And at the farmers’ market what do we pay double for? The baby kale, the micro-greens, and the pea shoots. [Laughter.] So hello, this is gourmet delight; the deluxe version.
You could grow scallions, maybe: You can’t start a big, bulbing onion now from seed where we live, but you could sow seed and get a scallion or green onion to use in cooking or fresh. So learning to eat things young.
Even squash: You might like squash blossoms, and there’s not enough time to get loads of full-formed fruit, but maybe blossoms. That’s a gourmet item and not often available in the farm market, but you could try that, and stuff them and tempura them and so on.
I think herbs are another thing when space comes up in the garden—because you don’t need a lot of them to get the punch of flavor. Maybe there are some herbs we should think about planting?
A. That’s another weather-related thing. I love basil; it’s my favorite herb. I love making pesto, and I’m always reinventing it when I don’t have quite enough basil, I’m adding other things: lettuce, arugula, wild-harvested greens. I’ve put in scapes—whatever the time of year is. With basil, you can start it every two to three weeks the whole season, if you want to be rolling in basil.
But the other weather issue with that: It’s been really wet, and dank, and the basil doesn’t like that. It’s starting to get that browning on the leaves, so succession sowing is also like an insurance policy for your favorite thing. If something happens and the weather isn’t cooperating, or you go away for a weekend and the woodchuck gets in because it knows you’ve left. I don’t know if that ever happens to anyone…
Q. It’s never happened to me. [Laughter.] I have no pests.
A. I’ve heard about your rabbits!
Q. They watch, you know: We have trail cameras to watch them, but I swear they’re monitoring us.
A. So with succession sowing, like sowing basil every two weeks, if something happens to one crop, there’s another on the way. Basil is a big one for me.
Q. So there has been an outbreak and devastation of basil crops for farmer and gardeners around the country the last couple of years, in areas with basil downy mildew—a fungus-like disease. One scientist at Cornell told me she was experimenting with growing it in pots, so she could keep it in a protected area—not in open soil, but on her porch under cover, not exposed to sodden weather. Is growing things in pots another strategy?
A. That’s a whole other strategy for later planting. It’s actually warmer near your house, but most people’s gardens aren’t right near the house. If you’re growing in pots—or have you seen the fabric planters?
A. And they have handles, so the great thing is you can start things in them anywhere you want. Then as the season is getting cooler, you can just pick them up by the handles—there’s no big pot to pick up, but just the soil weight—and move them closer to the house, against the side of the house. Then you can get a little more from your season, and have a kitchen herb garden within arms reach when you’re cooking.
Q. You and I have talked about this before, but as you know I’m not a big believer in the promise of “Grow herbs on your windowsill year-round no matter where you live.” The people claiming that have never apparently been around my windowsill, which in winter is extremely cold and drafty—even with insulated windows—and doesn’t have a lot of light then, in winter, in my Northern climate.
But you could bring some herbs in in bags, though they can be a little messy, or in pots and at least extend the season by a month before they peter out. Just like you could bring in a pot of impatiens or other annual and have a little more enjoyment, or a hanging basket.
A. You could do that with nasturtiums, or our Tiger Paw aster [Callistephus chinensis above] which is beautiful—a gorgeous cut flower that’s happy in a pot. If you grew it in a pot you can drag it in and get a little more time out of it.
The trick is that all of those things need to be started outside, at the right time. You’re bringing them in when they’re close to mature or mature.
Q. They’ve already done most of their growing in the ideal conditions—they have gotten maximum light and so forth.
You mentioned flowers, and what I want to spend more time discussing: saving seeds of flowers. A lot of us don’t think about saving flower seeds in the same way we say, “I saved my favorite squash,” or tomato. But there are a lot of flowers that are easy to grow and save.
A. People always want to know what are the easiest things to save seeds from, for beginners. Calendula is one of the easiest—and also one of my favorite seed shapes.
Q. It’s like a crazy barbed hook or something.
A. They’re beautiful. I have a photo from an electron microscope of them, and it’s like a reptilian fossil. They’re incredible. And part of what makes calendula and a lot of flowers easy is that the seeds are not encased in a fruit.
A. So it’s pretty easy to tell with a flower when the seeds are ready. So with calendula, for instance, if you can resist deadheading, and let the flower fade, you’ll see those spiral, hook-shaped seed forming in the seedhead. When they’re green, you know they’re not ready yet.
They’ll start to turn brown, and get brittle—as long as it’s not raining every single freaking day. [Laughter.] Basically, when you reach out for that flowerhead and give it a little squeeze, all those seeds will fall off into your hand. [Clockwise above, from flower to harvested seed, in calendula.]
Q. In the same way that a vegetable at eating stage should slip off the vine, the seeds when they’re ready are ready to let go of the mother plant, too.
A. In terms of timing: We’re trained to interrupt the life cycle at its most beautiful moment, or its most delicious moment.
As seed savers, what we’re doing is interrupting that life cycle just before the plant would be ready to let go of the seeds. That might be a puffing out, or a drying, or dropping—whatever that plant’s way of spreading its seeds is. So calendula is easy; zinnias are actually really easy. You can just snip those heads, bring them in, and let them dry on the counter. Then when you break them up, it’s like all these little arrowhead shaped seeds in that cone. It almost looks like Echinacea, like a coneflower.
I have friends who do that and they have their own zinnia seeds every year.
Q. And we don’t have to worry as much with flowers as we do with vegetables about whether it’s a hybrid or not, whether it’s open-pollinated—you can kind of just see what you get, no?
A. Yes; you’re not eating it, and so the variation you’ll get will just be fun.
Q. Some open-pollinated varieties are more stable—like you have a great red zinnia.
A. ‘The Gift’ is my favorite zinnia. It’s a large, big, bushy zinnia—and the red is incredible, if you’re a red person and want some of that bright red color in your garden. That’s one of the main flowers that we grow seed of for the catalog every year.
Q. It’s stable and will come true—but again, even with, for instance, columbine or other perennials and biennials, they may sow around or you can collect the seeds and not get 100 percent consistency. But you’ll still get flowers—where with a melon or a squash, you might get some nasty old thing from the seed that sprouted in the compost heap.
A. [Laughter.] Or a little bitter.
Q. So you think there’s hope for us Ken, even though we’ve been a bit besieged and beleaguered?
A. There is always hope. Gardening is an adventure, never-ending. There’s always something you can be sowing right through November, even around here.
- Ken’s calendar of late sowings
- My list of late sowings, plus links to those for other regions
- All my succession-sowing advice to browse
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its sixth year in March 2015. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 13, 2015 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Photos of grow bag, annual aster, zinnia and calendula from Hudson Valley Seed Library.)