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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Crops I grew - 2017

It's October and fall is spreading it's colorful hues all around the farm. The hot and humid summer is over and so are the weekly rains. The frost date is still miles away so, up until last week, I was happily planting some cool season crops that could be harvested till end of November. October 5 was the last planting date for the season. Onwards from here, tasks like maintenance, monitoring, harvest, season extension etc take place on a weekly basis. In this post, I will talk about the crops I chose to grow this season, market response and success with each of them.

Spinach: Spinach was one of the first leafy green that I started on a raised bed. Being a cool season crop, spinach does well in spring and produces delicious tasting greens that can be harvested even in deep winters. After the first harvest of spinach in June, all subsequent planting were unsuccessful. I love spinach and I cook spinach quite often. I wanted to take this crop to the market throughout the season.That didn't happen. Spinach is finicky about germination in hot weather. As temperatures soared in June and July, the back bending task of direct seeding spinach by hand on a 40' bed, was an effort gone waste. I also didn't know that spinach needs consistent moisture during seed germination. I missed keeping spinach bed consistently moist on some days which resulted in seed sitting dormant. I kept seeding spinach multiple times in summer with limited success. Each time a crop fails to grow, valuable space and time is lost. After three failed attempts of planting spinach during summer, spinach germinated beautifully in September and October. No back breaking work as I got hold of an old Earthway seeder from my neighbor which made direct seeding a breeze. Spinach is not the easiest crop to grow for beginners. In hot summers, it is hard to keep soil temperature just right for spinach seed to break it's outer seed coat and sprout.
Spinach bed

Cilantro: The smell of this herb is oh-so-good! What's not to love about cilantro. I plan to have this easy to grow herb in my garden year after year. Cilantro grows in most clay soils without much fuss and has negligible pest pressure. The seeds can take some time to germinate but once they do, the plant grows vigorously. A little watering once a week in summer was all I did. I dedicated two 30' beds for cilantro and seeded intensively. I planted it Cilantro in partial shade and it grew well in summer and fall before flowering in early October. Once Cilantro flowers, there is little left to harvest. The delicate cilantro flowers not only add beauty to the garden but are also a magnet for pollinating bees.

Cilantro blooms

Scallions: A member of the allium family, scallions are cold hardy, mild tasting and easy to grow. I started scallions in spring as transplants in seed trays. Scallion take a long time to grow (more than two months) and grow slow. Since they do not form bulbs like a regular onion, it's their green tops that garnishes your meals. Scallions can be harvested over a course of time. I was able to harvest scallion for three weeks without worrying about leaving it in the field. However, once summer hits the peak, scallions became susceptible to thrips and caterpillars which causes holes in the leaves. Proper soil and pest protection measures go a long way in saving onions. Scallion weren't best seller for me in market and so I only took limited quantity of the crop. Additionally, since scallions have a short shelf life, leftovers from market wouldn't store well in my home.  Hence, by end of August, I removed all the scallions as they were growing slowly and looked nutrient deficient.

Basil: I enjoyed planting basil in the field at the start of summer. The smell and taste of the sweet basil leaves is very refreshing. I started basil from seeds and transplanted the seedlings in two 40' beds in the farm. They were off to a good start for four weeks before they succumbed to downy mildew. The constant rains and humid and hot environment favored the spread of downy mildew. Unfortunately, I didn't find any organic measures for prevention of this disease. I tried foliar application of baking soda and neem oil which is supposed to act as natural fungicides but once the disease gets in the plant tissues, none of these measures proved effective. After four weeks in the field, I had to remove all basil plants and trash them in plastic bag. Basil being a Mediterranean plant likes hot and dry as opposed to the humid continental climate of northeast. Greenhouses serve best for basil in this region.


Sweet Peppers: This was one of my favorite summer crops that also gave me a hard time from start to end. Growing sweet peppers and waiting for it to ripen is a waiting game. Peppers need hot and dry season to perform well.The green peppers are the unripe stage of the fruit. The pepper can be eaten when green but would be little more sweet and flavorful when its color changes to orange or red. The change in color in peppers results in formation of sugars inside the fruit which results in sweeter flavors. I chose the 'Odessa Sweet Pepper' variety of pepper due to the good fruiting habit of the plant and short height. The peppers grew fine but took a long time to ripen and change colors. The peppers had thin skin and were good in raw salads. They were equally good cooked. I was able to to harvest peppers for good two months before I became impatient and decided to unearth the plant to make space for other cool season crops. Unless I have a greenhouse, I probably will not grow peppers next season for market.

Peppers ripening
Loads of unripe green peppers

Okra: Okra is quite an unusual crop for northeast. Not many farmers grow it due to less market demand.  For me, it was a personal liking for Okra. Although I planted too few plants, Okra sold well on all market days even with very limited quantity of it that I took.  I didn't know if it would sell well and so didn't want to dedicate space on my small farm for this long season crop. Most folks loved okra but for some, it was the most disliked vegetable. Okra is more popular in the south than in the cold northeast. At the farmer's market, people were pleasantly surprised to find okra being sold. I was the only one selling it. Okra plant grows well with minimum maintenance. Mature okra plants do not succumb to the usual pests, the June Beetles, that bother them the most. Except watering the seedlings, I didn't do much for the plant in the field. The plant is a shrub with thick stems and beautiful flowers and keeps producing well until cold night temperatures slows down the growth.  In early September, anticipating the temperatures will continue dropping, I removed okra plants to make way for root vegetables.

Okra flower
Okra plants


Root Vegetables: Root vegetables are of the favorite vegetables to eat and grow in fall season (besides pumpkins and squash). Turnips and radishes were the two root vegetables that I grew this year in fall. Some root vegetables are daylight sensitive and hence differ in variety according to season. I started turnips followed by radish in late August and September. Both were salad variety that can be eaten raw. Turnips were first planted in the beds that grew other leafy green. The soil was loose, neutral and amended with phosphorous and lime before direct seeding turnips. The turnips grew well just until last ten days before their harvest. The aphids got on the leaves and it stunted the growth of some plants. I harvested most out of the bed before the pests could destroy much of the crop. By that point, the crop was mature and was able to outgrow the pest pressure. Aphids and slugs were major pests of turnips and radishes this year. The underground pests like root maggot and slugs often chew the edible roots and weaken the plant if left unsupervised. The root maggots, which often destroy root crops by feeding on them from under the soil, were less of a problem for me. Thanks to the row cover that protected both radish and turnips from pests for most part of their growth. Regular scouting of fields is a must for a farmer. It is said that if the soil is balanced and the crop's nutrient needs are met, the crops are less succumbed to pests. In an alternate theory, pests do not eat healthy plants.
Turnip harvest

Lettuce: Everywhere on my farm, during the entire season, lettuce spread its glory. I have experimented 7-8 different lettuce varieties this season alone. I transplanted some lettuce varieties, and direct seeded some others. I watered some and left some to burn in the middle of summer. Some lettuce varieties were more loved by slugs and woolly caterpillars than others. Whether it is head lettuce, a leaf lettuce or a romaine lettuce, you could find one of every type in some corner of my farm. At the market too, lettuce sold exceptionally well due to its freshness and quality.  For most part, lettuce grew free of pests. I found the leaf varieties and some blended salad lettuces more pest resistant than others. For example, the loose leaf tango lettuce was grew pest free for an entire month whereas the beautiful Rhazes lettuce was a occasionally eaten by caterpillars. The occasional slugs and caterpillars were scouted and removed manually. With the size of my farm (a third of an acre), some manual processes of pest prevention are easier than hard physical control measures of any kind.


Arugula & Mustard: Arugula and mustard were the two spicy greens that were grown for salads mix. Arugula adds a spicy tone to the salad and complements the milder taste of lettuce leaves. Arugula was also a favorite among customers in the market. I grew mustard more for myself and as an experimental green. It is stronger than arugula in taste and spicier. I cook mustard and spinach together for a wholesome curry. I also add small amounts of mustard leaves to my salad if eating them raw. Market response of mustard was mixed as some folks liked the green and some found it too intense. When using an intense tasting green like mustard, the art is to mix with with milder greens or cook it to lessen the intensity. For the burst of flavor that it offers, a little effort is totally worth it.


Tatsoi: An uncommon asian green that grows well in cool months of the season. Tatsoi, also called asian spinach, forms beautiful rossets upon maturity (before going to flower). I grew it in limited quantity as an auxiliary green for salads and got a good market response. Few people knew that Tatsoi makes a good stir-fry too. Tatsoi is quite easy to grow and germinates well. Tatsoi, like other greens, grows well when protected from pests and grown in cool weather. Tatsoi is cold hardy and takes on light frost.

Amaranth: An experimental green that I grew for the first time this year. Amaranth grows in wild areas in many parts of the world with warm, dry weather. Amaranth is also popular in Greek kitchens as it grown in many parts of the country. Here is northeast, Amaranth grows in summer till the first frost. Amaranth leaves and seeds are both edible. It is very popular as micro-green in salads. I wanted to grow amaranth as a micro-green indoors but after failed attempt at that, I threw the seeds in the field and let it grow. Amaranth grows fast with very little care as long as it keep getting sun. The dark red leaves were truly a sight on the farm. As the plant gets big, the taste of leaves becomes strong. That's when this nutrient rich green is great in cooking as a stir-fry. In market, very few people tried Amaranth in the first few weeks. Later, as more food enthusiasts used it in their kitchens, it became popular. With unique and exotic crops like Amaranth, getting people to adopt it is a challenge. As a grower, I see it as an opportunity to offer something that differentiates me from other growers and getting creative in ways to market the same. If there is however, no market for a crop, there is no point growing and investing in it. I will grow Amaranth once again in limited quantity next year.
Amaranth leaves

Most of the crops I grew this season had short DTM (days to maturity). The ones with longer days to maturity like scallions, okra and sweet peppers were grown to have a continuous harvest in hot months when greens are difficult to grow. Yields from summer crops was lower than expected due to a variety of factors.

Being my first season in commercial production, I fared well. On a farm, I am constantly learning about the plant, soil and myself. Infrastructure management, crop monitoring, pest control, business management and marketing are equally important part of a farm business that requires attention. The season isn't over yet for another month before the start of vacation. A couple of projects are lined up for winter. More on them in later posts.

Happy Gardening