Archives for posts with tag: succession planting

One vegetable dies, another takes its place.

One plant germinates, sprouts its tiny stems, spreads its leaves, grows larger, offers its colorful blossoms to eager pollinators, sets fruit, and then gradually, or sometimes quickly, puts forth a bounty of shiny produce to the gardener who tended it.

And then, more quickly, the plant fades away, its produce picked and its energy spent. No more pretty flowers or tasty vegetables. Most plants simply wither away at this point although biennials will contentedly continue to absorb and store energy for their flowering the second year (not having flowered or produced seed in the first).

Depending on the time of year and the climate, that leaves a vacancy in the garden, a void that would be wasted if left unfilled. If it is early enough in the summer and the first frost is not expected until late fall, there is plenty of time for a fast-growing vegetable—radishes are a good example—to repeat the cycle of life and death before winter descends.

That’s how succession gardening is supposed to work, anyway.

In the best planned garden, there is more to it than squeezing a second round of produce into the growing season. With careful selection of the first vegetable planted, when it is through the soil will be well prepared (even if depleted in some respects) for the plant that follows it. Likewise, the second vegetable, if chosen with thought, will leave the soil ready for what is sowed the next spring. This process can be stretched out over multiple seasons in what becomes long-term crop rotation (see May 18, 2014).

Theoretically, we follow this approach. In practice, we do the best we can. I’ve already described our crop rotation strategy (see May 4, 2014) and for succession planting, we do multiple sowings of root vegetables, including two or three early in the season and one late in the season, for which we are about due.

We also planted a mid-season replacement for the Sugar Snap peas, the last of which we harvested this morning. There were still plenty of peas but production had slowed and the leaves had begun to turn yellow. New growth had appeared at the base of several vines and I was tempted to wait to see whether it would bear fruit. But wanting to move on, we pulled them out.

In their place we sowed string beans. We planted the same varieties as last year—Amethyst Purple and Roma II—knowing that they are fast-growing and prolific (assuming the seeds are still viable, of course). I don’t know whether string beans are a good successor to peas in terms of soil conditioning but I do know that they are the only other vegetable we grow that needs trellising.

Also, I love to eat them.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Believe it or not (I almost do not), we still have carrots, beets and turnips in the ground.  We’ve been storing them in place until we are ready to eat them.  Based on prior experience, the root vegetables experience no loss of firmness or flavor as a result of continued exposure to soil and the elements.

In the last few days, however, I have noticed that the greens are starting to look a bit tired.  Eight hours a day of unfiltered sunlight takes a lot out of a leaf.  Also, we are getting into fall now and the color of the leaves is changing.  I’m not talking about autumn reds and oranges; vegetable coloratura this is not.  But the green is fading and streaks of yellow and brown run through the leaves here and there.

Besides, these veggies were planted in the spring!  If we had sowed a second batch of seeds in late summer, they might be ripening about now.  The last of the carrots, beets and turnips are well past their intended season.

So, we pulled up all of them.

There were only a few turnips left, anyway (we’ve been intermittently grabbing two or three to add to salads these past weeks).  I’ve been saving their greens—they keep well in the refrigerator—but we found this last batch infested with caterpillars.  Most likely, these are the same critters who chewed the cauliflower leaves into lace.  With their preferred meal long gone, I suppose, they found the turnip greens to be just as delicious.

Likewise, just four carrots remained.  This is due more to the poor performance of the crop than our use of them in the kitchen.  Still, these final four are the best of the season, full-sized and full of flavor.  Two of the four are of the Atomic Red variety.  The color comes from lycopene (or so says the seed catalog), the same beneficial anti-oxidant in tomatoes.  Of the multi-colored varieties we planted this year (also, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone), the Atomic Red have the sweetest flavor (and possibly the coolest name).

I’m happy to say that almost an entire row of beets had been waiting for us.  Most of them are Chioggia, which when sliced crosswise, display concentric circles of red and white flesh (the outside is always red).  There are only a few Touchstone Gold beets and they are generally smaller than the Chioggias.  The sparsity and scarcity (relatively speaking) are representative of their relative performance all year.  Although their color is lovely and bleeds into the leaves, giving them a yellow glow, the golden beets do not seem well suited to our soil conditions.

While we were at it, we harvested the first three ripe bell peppers.  What a happy trio they turned out to be.  They remained in the garden about three weeks longer than we anticipated but the extra time was well spent.  They never completely lost a slight tinge of green but even so, their colors are brilliant.  A long sweat over low heat (along with onions from the farmers’ market) should deepen their hues and intensify their sweetness.

Baseball has been described as a game of mostly tedious inactivity interspersed with brief moments of intense excitement.  For example, a game might go eight innings with only a scattering of hits and no score, a dull display of routine grounders and fly balls.

And then the offense makes a charge with a ground-rule double, a successful bunt and a deep line drive.  Suddenly, the bases are loaded with no outs.  The pitcher is still strong and the manager leaves him in to get out of the inning.

The outcome of the game hangs on the next few pitches and it could go either way.  Will there be a base-clearing grand slam homer or, even rarer, a triple play to save the day for the defense?  Or, as is often the case, will the excitement fizzle out with a pop fly followed by an easy double play at second and first?

Gardening could be described in a similar way.  For much of the year, nothing much changes from day to day and if one actually stopped to watch, there would not be much to see.  But an emerging seedling, new blossom, or ripening tomato can get one’s blood flowing.

In fact, there are other similarities between gardening and baseball that give it a run for the money as America’s favorite pastime.

The season starts with the intense physical activity of cleaning up the planters, starting seeds indoors and preparing new beds (spring training).  This is followed by the growing of seedlings, a potentially dull period (preseason play) that is not without its exciting moments, such as when the freshly-germinated seeds first pop through the soil surface (the emergence of a potential star player).  Of course, the non-performers must be culled (roster cuts).

Then comes early spring and the first planting of seeds and seedlings outdoors (Opening Day).  Nothing can match the exhilarating feeling of transforming a fallow garden into a verdant patch of hopefulness and promise (anything is possible).

Early Summer is for growing, which can be quite monotonous.  There can be long stretches where the garden looks more or less the same every day for a week (early season games).  But then the radishes ripen and the Sugar Snap peas start producing and the thrills of having a garden are remembered (a perfect game is pitched).

By mid-July, it is clear which vegetables, a particularly productive variety of turnips, say, are the best performers (the All-Star Game).  Favorites are determined and shared with family and friends, often accompanied by recipes.  Fellow gardeners trade seeds with each other (baseball cards).

At summer’s peak, the abundance of the garden is appreciated every day when planning dinner (give me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks).  At some point, a friend might gift a seedling of their own to try in the garden (a free agent is signed).  Throughout this period, a carefully planned order of succession planting must be followed and, sometimes, tweaked (batting order adjustments).

As summer progresses, the early performers are harvested and fade away while later season vegetables take the stage (changes in division standings).  Some develop disease or are infested by insects and have to be removed (players placed on injured reserve or out for the season).  Others will produce beyond the wildest imaginings (home run hitting records).

When fall approaches, only the plants with the greatest stamina still survive (the playoffs).  Each week, as the days shorten and the temperature cools, the tomatoes, then the string beans and next the autumn radishes (late-season surge) fall away, unable to sustain their summer success.  Finally, only the hardiest plants, such as the winter squashes are still standing (World Series champions).

After the euphoria of harvest (the Fall Classic) fades, there is a lull of activity followed by the preparation of the gardens for winter.  What grew well and what did not?  Tough decisions must be made (off-season trading).  Despite the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat, plans are made for a better garden (just wait until next year!).

I got what I asked for (see June 25, 2013) and summer arrived in spades on the Fourth of July.  We’ve had mostly 90-degree days ever since.  The humidity is high and it rarely gets below the 70s at night so almost needless to say, our pool—and our one small air conditioner—are getting a lot of use.

We’re a bit exhausted but the vegetables seem to be enjoying it.  The tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are all heat lovers and are growing by leaps and bounds.  The squash and cucumbers are also looking pleased with the warmer weather.  We have not had any rain to speak of so I have been careful to run the water every day (the remaining heads of lettuce get a mid-day sprinkling as well) to keep anything from drying out.

Not everything is responding well to the heat, however.  The arugula has been struggling to get beyond the seedling stage even with frequent watering.  And some of the carrots and beets have been in the ground since April.  The carrots in particular are looking a bit scraggly and are probably in danger of bolting.  So we decided to pull out all but the last row of carrots and turnips.

We were not surprised to find the turnips large and meaty—they have been performing well all season—but we were positively ecstatic to discover that the carrots had quietly grown to normal size.  We planted a mixture of seeds that were marketed as a rainbow of colors but comprised only red, orange and yellow, the Roy in Roy G. Biv (I guess that puts us on a first name basis with the rainbow).  Of these, the red grew the largest (and sweetest).

In the space left behind, we transplanted a six-pack of cauliflower seedlings that we purchased a week or two ago from a small, family-owned garden center nearby.  Of the Bishop variety, the seedlings have been toughing it out in their plastic container waiting for an opening in the garden.  We arranged them in a staggered row, loosened their root balls and buried them up to their first set of leaves (their stems had gotten quite long).  These are the only vegetables we did not start from seed and it will be fun to compare the outsiders’ progress to that of the natives.

Between uprooting and planting, we noticed that something has been getting into the basil and nibbling on the leaves.  I can’t say I blame whoever is responsible—the basil is incredibly lush and irresistibly fragrant—but I will say that they are not very tidy.  Several of the basil leaves are covered with scat (frass might be a more appropriate term).  We clipped and discarded the affected leaves and reminded ourselves to carefully wash whatever basil we use.

Early morning is the best time to garden, while it is light but the plants are still shaded by the eastern trees.  And when the weather is hot, as it has been lately, early morning is the coolest time of day.  Once the sun clears the trees and starts shining on us directly, everything heats up.

Having eaten the last of the Sugar Snap peas last night (we chose to make them the last; the plants probably would have continued to produce), I carefully removed the vines today.  They had formed an interwoven fabric of stems, branches and tendrils that was firmly anchored to the trellis.  Pulling the vines free of the trellis without damaging it required some effort and concentration.

In the process, I found one pea that Rachel missed, despite her careful inspection of the plants, stem by stem.  I know from my own experience that the pea pods, even when they are large and plump, can hide in plain sight, blending in as they do with the surrounding leaves and branches.

And, in fact, I also found several peas that we had missed weeks ago.  Yesterday’s escapee was plump and sweet (I later gave it to Rachel to snack on); the older evasive peas, ensconced in tangles of leaves and tendrils, were shriveled and black (and completely unappetizing).

When I was finished with the demolition, Rachel joined me.  After clearing away the mulch, we sowed seeds for two types of string beans:  Amethyst Purple Filet Beans (to the west) and Roma II Bush Beans (to the east).  Working quickly (the sun was starting to rise above the treetops), we spaced holes at about two inches on center, using our fingers as dibbles.  Bean seeds are easy to plant (they are simply dried peas) and we were done in a matter of minutes.

String beans are slowpokes (55 to 70 days to maturity) and we will have a bit of a wait before we can eat them.  We should have the bush beans by late August.  The filet beans—a bright purple variety I remember my mother growing when I was in high school—take even longer to mature.  We will not be eating them until after Labor Day.

The second best time to garden is dusk.  As the sun drops to the horizon, there is an almost audible sigh of relief from the earth as the seemingly relentless barrage of light and heat diminishes and cooling begins.  Starting at about 6:30, there are one to two hours of twilight during which a lot of work can be done before it gets too dark.

On Sunday—a day of blistering sun—I spent those precious evening hours pruning the tomato plants and tying them to their cages.  I also retied the bell peppers and eggplants (moving their Velcro straps upwards) which have grown much taller in the summer warmth.

We finished what we thought would be the last of the Sugar Snap peas the other day and I was considering pulling them out in preparation for sowing seeds for green beans.  But although there are currently no peas developing, each plant is producing another round of blossoms.  We’ll wait another few days to see if a late crop forms before we move on.  The peas are a short-lived treat and if there is the chance of a few more, I’ll take it.  There is plenty of time for the string beans.

For the last few days, I have been worried about the slow growth of the tomato plants.  The weather conditions up until now have been almost exactly the opposite of what they prefer (cool and wet versus warm and dry).  Reassuringly, however, the vines are finally showing signs of life.  As of today, they have all reached the second rung of their cages.

Not only are they taller and fuller but the Sungolds have sent forth their first branches of blossoms.  The flowers are only just formed and have not yet completely opened but once they do, they are sure to attract bees and other pollinators.  After that, it will not be long until we see cherry tomatoes.  Of course, we will still have to wait for them to grow and ripen but it is encouraging nonetheless.

All of the tomato plants are sprouting new branches, some which are low on the stem, as far down as the soil surface.  Using clippers, we nipped off all new growth lower than about six inches above the ground.  This will help keep the lowest portion of the plants dry and exposed to ventilating breezes.

Suckers have also started to form at most of the existing branches.  Now, I’m generally a proponent of aggressive pruning and my first reaction was to remove all of them.  This is the policy to which I adhered last year and certainly, the tomato vines were much easier to manage and tie to the cages.  But they also had fewer branches on which fruit could develop and that may have contributed to last year’s meager harvest (I don’t think it was the only reason).

This year, I will take a more moderate stance and assess each budding branch individually.  If a sucker is located where there are already several branches (or otherwise lush foliage), I will clip it off.  Alternatively, if a sucker forms where the plant is sparse, I’ll let it grow in.  The goal will be a uniformly full plant without undue congestion.

The summer squash plants also seem to have shifted into a higher gear and are beginning to fill out.  The only exception is one of the zucchini vines.  It otherwise looks normal but is only about half of the size of its sibling.  It is like someone hit it with a shrinking ray.  Actually, its color is also not as deeply green as its sister plant, which may be an indication that it is struggling.  Perhaps a dose of fertilizer to spur its growth?

To fill out the east planter, I sowed seeds for beets, carrots, radishes and turnips in the last vacant row.  Rather than choose between the four types of root vegetables, I planted a short length of each.

I also put in a second batch of lettuces.  I planted them in the same corner of the west planter as the first and in the same arrangement only staggered by six inches.  If all goes well, we should be starting to harvest the first heads of lettuce before the second reach full size.  However, even if the first are delayed (as our lettuces were last year), there should be sufficient room for all.

One planter done, one more to go…

Right on schedule, the radish seeds sent up their sprouts today (the packet said four to six days and it has been five).  So far, our experiment in fall planting is working out.

If things continue to go well, the radishes will be ready for eating in about two weeks.  They took longer in the spring (by an additional two weeks) so we shall see.

With the zucchini plant now gone, there is a lot of space available in the east planter.  My excuse for not starting anything for fall harvest is no longer valid!  Well, it’s a bit late for fall planting but we decided to give it a try anyway.  Better late than never, right?

But what to plant?  Given our tardiness, it would have to be something hardy and quick.  Anything sensitive to frigid temperatures could meet a premature death if we have an early cold snap; anything that takes longer than a month to produce would almost assuredly freeze before reaching maturity.

We thought about it awhile and decided on radishes.  They have a very short growing period—three weeks, theoretically—and otherwise make few demands.  They are easy to grow and quick about it.  Plus, we still have plenty of radish seeds on hand.  Therefore, we’ll use them as an experiment in fall vegetable gardening.

In the cucumbers’ former location (and where soaker hoses are still present), we sowed a longitudinal row of Pink Beauty and a parallel row of French Breakfast radishes.  We were much more careful to space the seeds about an inch apart.  Even if all of the seeds germinate, they will not be as crowded together as they were in the spring.

If there is enough sun and warmth to produce a useful crop of radishes by mid-October then perhaps next year, we can grow other fall vegetables, especially if we get an earlier start (say, by Labor Day).

There is a definite feel of imminent fall in the air, even though it is still summer-hot.  We get two or three days like this each summer and they provide a snapshot of how the weather during the next few months will feel.  I like to call them “Fall Preview Days”.  The same occurs in fall, winter and spring (i.e., winter, spring and summer previews) and they are a nice reminder, after three months of a particular weather pattern, that a change is coming.

Speaking of fall, planting now for harvest later this year may not happen.  This is partially due to late-summer laziness (as I said, it is still hot and the days languid) and partially due to space limitations (the sprawling and still-producing zucchini plant has mostly filled the vacant quadrant of the east planter).  But there is another factor as well.

Our fringe seasons are affected not only by the shorter days but also by the lower inclination of the sun.  There are three closely-spaced, tall and narrow fir trees along the property line between our neighbors and us, just south of the pool fence.  They act as the pointer on a giant sundial.  In July, the tip of their combined shadow traces a line that arcs across the strip of lawn between the pool deck and the fence.  In the middle of the afternoon, their shade conveniently envelops a hammock we have positioned there, making it the ideal spot for a midday nap.

In August, the northern edge of the shadow reaches into the pool.  It interferes with the water’s direct gain of solar heat and the water temperature drops accordingly.  But on a bright and clear day, there is less glare (which in July is blinding) and it allows us to swim with less risk of sunburn.

By Labor Day—the official, if not astrological, end of summer—the shadow cast by the fir trio extends all the way across the pool and deck to the strip of lawn to the north where our planters are located.  As a result, each planter is in partial shade for an hour or so as the shadow sweeps from west to east (opposite the path of the sun).  The reduced solar exposure is equivalent to what the conditions will be a month from now.

Combined with the woods to the east and west of us, our fall growing season is effectively shortened.  Anything we plant now or in the next few weeks may not make it to fruition.  For that matter, it remains to be seen whether the string beans, planted in early July (see July 11, 2012) but nowhere near maturity, will start to produce before the weather turns cold.