We’re on the tail end of a week where daytime temperatures haven’t gotten above freezing. Like the rest of the country, we’re in path of the “Polar Vortex” coming down from the great white north. It’s very unusual for it to be this cold (with snow on the ground to boot) this early in the season. Thankfully, Walla Walla is a big fat Zone 7 climate, and we haven’t gotten below zero, even at night, in the three years I’ve lived here.
We had an incredibly long fall, where we really didn’t get a significant frost until November 11th. I went out and picked the last of the tomatoes, hot chilies and sweet peppers a few days before. Seriously crazy. Our average first frost date is normally in late September, or early October at the very latest.
As we take care of winterizing tasks, buying a couple of cords of firewood, a couple of tons of hay, and getting the propane tank filled, I reflect on this growing season. What worked, what didn’t, what I won’t do again, and what I want to try new for next year.
Cold season crops.
I didn’t grow peas this year. I put in a few just for us out in our side yard, but I got them in late and they didn’t receive adequate attention, and so nothing really came of them. I love a good snap pea in a stir fry, or a shelling pea, raw, eaten while standing in the garden sunshine. But the time to plant, cultivate (battling the slugs and the cottontail rabbits, both who love to eat pea shoots) and pick peas, for the little I can get for them at market, well, I didn’t miss them.
This was the year that I learned to start more things in flats and transplant out. I had an early crop of lettuce that had reseeded from the previous fall that I got a bit of a harvest out of (it was in the wrong bed, so eventually got harvested or tilled under). The other three sequential crops I started in flats and transplanted. Hallelujah. I even got to try out a couple of “slow to bolt, can take the heat” varieties that I’ve had for a couple of years from Johnny’s; Green Butterhead Adriana and Red Butterhead Red Cross. We made it into mid July before I was done. I have always planted lettuce from seed, and end up planting too close or not thinning enough, and so the plants get crowded and unhappy. Not this year. I have seen the light. I’m personally a fan of loose leaf and butterhead varieties. Lettuce seed is good for a LONG time, and I’m still working through some seed packs I have dating back to 2010, many of them mixes (it’s always a surprise!) Red lettuce, in general, looks pretty but does not store nearly as long, so I don’t grow as much of it. I love Blushed Butterhead Cos (a cross between a romaine and a butterhead, with just a hint of color).
Chenopod family: Beets, Spinach, Swiss Chard
I did finally figure out the timing on planing beets multiple times, and had a great crop. In the past, beets have always been popular for me at market, but this year, while they sold OK, I did often have extra that got fed to the sheep. Frustrating, that. Next year I’m gonna focus more on specialty beets like golden and chioga. They are SO easy to grow (except for the beet leaf miner – which affects this whole family of plants in the spring and fall) and look so beautiful bunched for market, that I can’t imagine not growing them.
Spinach. I’ve started seeding spinach in the greenhouse (love my greenhouse). This takes a lot more time then direct seeding, but the seed I was planting was old, and so my germination was sporadic. In the end, a much better result, despite the extra time, to plant plants rather than seeds. I’ve pretty much landed on Space and Tyee for varieties. Both are hybrids, but have much better bolt and disease resistance than the classic Bloomsdale. Space is better for early spring. Tyee is better as the days warm up.
Swiss Chard. I wish I liked the taste of this plant more. I’m just not a huge fan of this beautiful earthy green, though I’m good with it as a filler in lasagna and other pasta type dishes. It is super easy to grow and pretty much bomb proof for the entire season. I literally harvested it from June until the end of market in October and could have kept going until we let the sheep into the garden pasture this late fall. (They DO love it). I don’t sell a lot of it, but its so easy to grow and harvest that it just isn’t worth NOT bringing a few bunches every market.
Cole Crops, aka Mustard Family: Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kohlrabi, Chinese Cabbage, Kale, Radish
I started all of these plants from seed in the greenhouse, except for the radish. We had purchased a truck load of the compost available from the local landfill, that is produced from their “green waste” disposal program. I talked to the employee quite a bit about it, and got a print out of the composition. I noticed at the time that the pH was rather high (8!), but was assured that it had been sitting for a year since the report was run, and had come down. Well, don’t believe it. I now believe that these crops, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage in particular, are extra sensitive to soil pH, and I was using this compost in my homemade soil mix (which included peat moss, which is acidic – so I was hoping for a happy middle ground). I often had low germination, or germination and then very slow growth or sudden die off. It took me a while to figure out what the issue was, and I wasted weeks and weeks replanting seedlings only to have them die. So in the end, all of these crops went in WAY later than they should have.
I tried a bunch of new varieties of Broccoli this year, after deciding what I wanted was a plant that would produce a big full 6-8″ head for that first harvest. Side shoots were a bonus, but I really wanted that showy first harvest. I grew Bay Meadows, Fiesta and Sun King. All did very well in the end, despite the late planting. I did, unfortunately, loose track of what got planted where due to all the seedling die off, and so will have to do the experiment again next spring with better notes to tell which one I like the best. They all did surprisingly well into the summer as our days got hot.
Cauliflower I got it in way to late, and so the whole crop was a wash, despite covering it with light weight agricultural cloth to cut the sun a bit. This was extra unfortunate as I really wanted to try out the Cauliflower di Sicilia Violetta, a purple variety from Seeds of Italy that was recommended to me. I grew some great sheep fodder though.
What is it with Red Cabbage? It’s just consistently more difficult to germinate than white cabbage. I only grow the smaller 3-4 lb compact cabbage. Generally, no one is looking for the 6+ pound heads, including me, and I like the compact nature of the plants. So far, the best producer is Gonzales, a green variety. It’s just consistently a good producer, and it holds well. I grew Golden Acre, an old open pollinated variety, this year, just to try it, and it split before it got any size. Granted, I DID plant it too late, so it was hot. I had almost no red cabbage, between the poor germination and the compost issues. I’m searching for a good compact red variety to try again next year.
I love how easy Chinese cabbage is to germinate and transplant. It always seems that every seed comes up and every plant survives. I thought, now that my slug issues are better under control, that I would try growing it again this year. (When I grew it two years ago, it was an absolute magnet for slugs – I’ve never seen a plant so covered with the buggers). It bolted before it formed heads. I left them in the ground, a turkey nested under the seed stalks, and then it reseeded all over the garden this fall. And bolted before it formed heads. I’m starting to think this just isn’t the crop for me.
Kohlrabi. I grew both Early White Vienna and Winner this year. The Winner was the winner, in terms of consistency. Early White is all over the place for me, sometimes taking months and months to bulb up. Winner was my one success in growing a fall crop this year as well. I started a flat of it inside (where the temperatures were in the 70’s instead of the 90’s) in August, and was able to plant it out and harvest most of it before the end of the season in October. Not everyone knows this lovely vegetable, but those who do are very loyal to it, and I often had people buy 3 or 4 heads from me at a time when they saw it at market. Plus its like growing a plant from another planet, which is just fun. It looks completely alien, and has started many a conversation at market.
Kale. I started kale in the greenhouse this year, and will do it this way from now on. MUCH better than direct planting, and I can’t imagine direct seeding again, despite the fact that kale is in the mustard family and generally comes right up. I did battle with aphids on the kale, as I do every year during the cool spring, and won until September. When the temperatures come back down, the aphids ramp up, and staying on top of them becomes almost impossible. And at that point, everyone is pretty sick of kale anyway. I think the kale health food craze may be on the downslide. I did implement a new harvest regime this year. Kale wilts very fast once picked, so I’ve started filling up a big harvest tub with cool water, and I put the bunched kale directly into this while I’m harvesting other crops in the garden. Then a good shake off and into the fridge they go. Keeps them much more crisp. Now, if I could only figure out how to display them at market without them wilting within 30 minutes!
Radish. Radishes are such a fun early crop to grow. From seed to harvest in 6 weeks or less, its always one of the first things available at spring market. I’ve been growing the Easter Egg mix, for the fun color combinations, but at the request of a customer, this year I tried a purple variety and Cheriette, a small red variety. The purple ones were inconsistent in shape and color and so I won’t plant them again, but the Cheriette was fantastic. I’ve found my radish. They were super consistent in color and size and held amazingly well for a radish. I actually had one that I just left in the ground, and it got HUGE before it finally went to seed. I highly recommend Cheriette. I got my seed from Fedco Seed.
For the first time, maybe in the history of my planting potatoes, it did not frost after I got them in the ground. AND we trapped something like 15 gophers out of the garden. Between these two things, I generally had a great crop this year (though keeping up with the weeds in this bed is always difficult for me, and I had kind of lost that battle by the end of the season. I’ve been holding over some spuds from each season and planting them the following year. Experts will have you know that this is verboten, as potatoes pick up viruses and over time become more and more diseased. Well, that may be, but so far it hasn’t affected my crop. I grow a red variety, a blue variety and Yukon golds. I mostly grow these for us, but do sell 10 or 20 lbs at market in the fall. I may try out a few new varieties next spring. I’ve been meaning to check out Irish Eyes Garden Seed, which is located in Ellensburg WA.
Like last year, I grew Rossa Lunga di Tropea and Borrettana Cipollini for market and a storage variety of red and yellow onions for ourselves. My goal is to not have to buy onions at the store, ever. This is silly, since onions are cheap, and they usually show up on the “clean 15” list of vegetables that even when grown conventionally, have very little pesticide residue. But they are also easy to grow and store, so it just seems silly to buy them when I can grow them myself. I start the plants from seed inside even before I start my peppers and tomatoes, and then plant out the seedlings in mid May. It’s always fun to sell the Cipolllini and Tropea at market (another great conversation starter). This year I grew Copra (an old standby for me) and Red Bull. The Red Bull, in particular, had a really great germination rate, and so I have a LOT of red storage onions this year. Cooks Illustrated, years ago, did a French Onion Soup recipe where red onions turned out to be the best onion for the soup. I’ll take it!
I also purposely planted out a few of last year’s onions, with the intention of harvesting the seed (onions are a biannual crop – they take two years to produce seed). I did manage to harvest some seed this year, but I suspect that they are all crossed up genetically, so it will be interesting to plant some of them out and see what happens. Also new in the side yard (the “perennial garden”), Egyptian Walking Onions. I wanted to try them and ended up with some from two different sources. We’ll see if they bend over and plant their own tops this coming spring. Now if I can only locate some multiplier onions as well, my allium suite will be complete.
The garlic did well this year. I planted it out last October, with the help of some friends, and covered it with straw. The straw kept the row mulched well in early spring and kept the early spring weeds at bay. It all got away from me late in the season, but by that time the garlic was out of the ground and it didn’t matter. The rumor is that hard neck garlic doesn’t store as well, but has a better, more “gourmet” flavor. Soft neck stores better, but generally isn’t quite as tasty and is harder to peel. I’ve always grown some of both (Spanish Roja hardneck and Inchelium Red softneck – the Inchelium was bred in Washington), but I often don’t get to the hard neck fast enough to use it all before it spoils. Recently, doing a bit more research, I ran across this website, which will teach you more about garlic than you could ever want to know. Did you know you can figure out what group your hard neck is in by how the garlic scape seed head loops? How cool is that? I guess a better storing hardneck are the Porcelain varieties, so I might try some Music next year. I do find there is a pretty good market for garlic, and should probably sell more of it than I do.
I find I can always sell a few bunches of leeks at every market. They are kind of pain to pick and process. They have one heck of a root ball on them, that needs to be forked out of the ground, and then trimmed off with scissors so you don’t drag 2 lbs of soil to market, but someone always wants to buy a bunch. This year I made sure I got them all out of the ground, even if they were small. Last year I sacrificed quite a few to the sheep because I didn’t get them dug before it froze. I’ve grown both King Richard and King Sieg for the last few years. Sieg is better if you are planning to overwinter some of the crop. Since I’m not, I’ll just grow the Richard next year, as it matures faster. By the way, if you are ever making potato leek soup, make a stock out of the tops of the leeks and use it in the soup. I never really got what the big deal was with this soup (my parents loved it) until I learned that trick. It takes it from “this is OK” to “when can we make this again”.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2014, where these beautiful birds are enjoying their last chilly week before the big day. Gobble gobble.