This is the gardening post I started to write yesterday. We’ve finally hit full fall conditions here in Northern Virginia, with frost or near-frost conditions each night. So this is a post about a few final things I learned in this year’s gardening.
In a nutshell:
- If you are planting sweet potatoes, plant lots of slips, rather than counting on the spreading of the vines to fill your beds.
- Radiant barrier works well to extend the fall season of low-to-the-ground crops such as lettuce.
- Might as well plant what survives well, rather than struggle to keep ill-suited crops alive.
Sweet potato nuances: In times of famine …
“In times of famine, we’d be glad to have that.” That’s the polite phrase my wife uses when I pull some undesirable bit of produce out of the garden.
It’s far nicer than “who in their right mind would eat that”, yet makes the same point. It can be said equally of the undesirable (e.g., eggplant), the ludicrously undersized (e.g., pinky-sized carrots), and the only-partially-edible (e.g., spade-marked potatoes).
But before I diss the sweet potato as mere famine-food, let me sing its praises. As far as I can tell, it needs absolutely no care whatsoever, other than keeping it watered until it gets established. It grows like a weed, covering its beds and shading out any actual weeds. It puts out lovely little morning-glory-type flowers (as it is in the same family as morning glory). It produces a lot of calories per square foot. You can plant it beneath taller plants (such as sunflowers or peppers) and it’ll cover the ground beneath and produce tubers. And harvest is easy — peel back the vines, scrape the soil, and you’ll see the tops of the sweet potatoes, ready to be pulled.
The yield of calories per square foot is only slightly lower than potatoes (per this reference). If I’ve done the metric-to-ridiculous conversion correctly, that works out to just about 100 edible calories per square foot for either of them.
I learned one important thing about sweet potato cultivation this year: Plant lots of slips.
This year, I grew them on a lark. I had a few store-bought sweet potatoes that had gotten moldy, and I decided to try to grow slips from them rather than just toss them. One out of three moldy potatoes yielded slips. But I figured it wouldn’t matter, as they would spread, and could be easily propagated by cutting the ends of vines and re-planting them.
So I started with just a handful of slips, and I let those spread to fill out the allotted portions of the beds. I had heard that the vines would put out sweet potatoes wherever they set down roots, as they spread out. I figured that I’d end up with a bed full of sweet potatoes, despite starting with just a few plants.
That was a mistake. Sure, the vines will put out additional sweet potatoes as they spread. But each vine only puts out big sweet potatoes at the original rooting spot for that vine. As it went along, it produced additional sweet potatoes at various nodes along the vine. But all of those “secondary” sweet potatoes were much smaller.
Here’s my harvest, from about 50 square feet of raised beds. (The hammer is there to give a sense of scale.)
By weight, I ended up with a roughly 60/40 mix of sweet potatoes of the size you’d see in the store, and sweet potatoes of the “in times of famine” variety. Large enough that they’re probably worth the effort of peeling and eating. But only just.
The moral of the story? In my climate (Zone 7), plant lots of slips. You can grow them the lazy way, by planting a few slips and letting the vines run to cover the allotted bed space. But you don’t want to. That gives you a few good-sized sweet potatoes, and a whole lot of undersized ones. I’d have done far better to have had three times as many slips, and kept the vines one-third as long.
Would I plant these again? You bet. I’m just going to plant them a little smarter next year. Stick them in the ground in the spring. Come back in the fall and harvest a significant amount of food. That’s pretty hard to argue with.
Radiant barrier for late lettuce.
In April (Post #G21-018), I tested the idea of using a radiant barrier to keep raised beds warm at night. And by tested, I mean tested. I used data loggers to track temperatures overnight in beds with and without a radiant barrier cover. The cover raised the bed temperatures by about 10F.
In Virginia, 10F should add about a month to the growing season. In Vienna, VA, over the past 30 years, the median date at which nighttime temperatures reached 22F or lower was roughly December 8. Compared to an expected first-frost date in the first week of November.
So, this fall, I’m putting that to use. Beneath the radiant barrier above is a small patch of lettuce. So far, practice validates theory. My lettuce is still alive despite a couple of frosts so far this week. I hope to grow that lettuce — albeit slowly (Post #G21-055) — into December.
In the end, I’m not sure this is any less effort than a hoop-house style greenhouse, set atop the bed. (PVC pipes bent into semi-circles, anchored to the ground, and covered with clear plastic sheet.) But I already own the pieces of radiant barrier, cut to size. So radiant barrier it is. It works.
Final harvest before winter: Peppers and other stragglers.
With frost coming, I did that garden ritual of picking absolutely everything that was left in the garden. That yielded the artfully arranged jumble you see above. Or the more orderly view of the same pile, below.
This year, overwhelmingly, what was left was peppers. Green to the left, banana to the right, cayenne at the top. (The cayennes are green, but in theory they will turn red now that they’ve been picked.)
I’m ambivalent about peppers. They don’t produce a lot of calories. But they pickle well, they’re OK in salads, and they have the outstanding advantage of taking care of themselves. Nothing around here seems to bother them much.
The lesson learned here is that I didn’t start out to have a pepper-heavy garden. With the exception of the eggplant and beans, these are the long-term survivors of what I planted back in the spring/early summer. With the lesson being that if I’m aiming for the best yield per unit of effort, maybe I need to change my attitude toward a family of produce that manages to last the whole year with no effort on my part.
Concluding remarks for the 2021 gardening year.
At the end of 2021, the only things left growing are some lettuce, and some garlic that I planted for harvest next year. So now’s a good time to recap and tentatively plan for what I’ll grow next year.
Non-food crops: Sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias. These are nice for taking up the odd corners of the garden and attracting bees. Zero upkeep other than watering the sunflowers in the driest part of the year. The sunflowers require serious deer deterrents. But they look nice, they feed the bird and the bees. So why not grow them again.
Low-maintenance starchy root crops: Potatoes, sweet potatoes. Those are both a definite yes for next year. So far those have been zero maintenance with good yield. Fresh potatoes tasted particularly good. I won’t bother with fingerling potatoes (turned out way too small). I’ll plan to fill a bed with sweet potato slips, rather than count on the spread of the vines to fill the bed.
Tomatoes: Yes, but. I will continue to “follow the rules” as I did this year, including staking and trimming. But I need to stagger the plantings by month so that I have them coming in all year. I have a least-effort process for making small batches of tomato sauce down cold (Post #G21-046). But if I’m going to end up making sauce, I should just go ahead and plant Romas or similar, as that should be much more energy-efficient (Post #G21-046). The home-dried tomatoes were a big hit, so I will definitely do that again next year. Given that, it’s well worth working out a practical way to do that with solar energy, in my humid climate (Post #G21-050).
Cucumbers and summer squash. I’m going to give those a pass next year. I expected these to be mainstays of my garden. Instead, after one year of bliss, they turned out to be nothing but trouble. I how have a garden area infested with cucumber beetles and targeted by squash vine borers. I may consider growing parthenocarpic (self-fertile, no-bees-needed) cucumbers under netting. But honestly, once you reach that point, it’s like Mother Nature is telling you to grow something else.
Butternut squash. Those are a definite yes. They seem to grow well, produce a reasonable yield of calories per square foot, and keep well once harvested. And they’re tasty. I can even keep the powdery mildew off them if I’m willing to put in the effort (Post #G20). The traditional Waltham variety has beaten all others that I’ve tried. And they all taste the same. So I see no reason to plant anything but that.
Green beans. Despite early failures, those are definitely on the list. For some reason, my first two plantings got hit by common bean mosaic. Only the last planting had a significant yield. They are labor-intensive to pick, but when they grow, they produce a nice steady yield.
Peas. Of course, peas. No work, some yield. Every year, I am tempted into growing “bush type” peas, figuring they need no support. Every year, I regret that when I end up with a tangle of peas that is difficult to harvest and impossible to weed. So my pledge is never to grow peas without support again. No matter what.
Beets, rutabagas, turnips, radishes. Maybe. I’m taking radishes off the list. Even if they grow to size, I just don’t like them enough to bother to grow them. Beets have been a total failure due to failure-to-sprout. But I now know this is a common problem in heavy soils, and I’ll try something new next year. Rutabagas and turnips were a near-total-failure this year, for reasons unknown. But the turnip varieties that grew were tasty — not at all like the turnips of my youth. So these remain on the list, if only because, in theory, you can get an early spring crop of them. I’m not going to bother with a fall crop because, unlike the spring crop, the fall-planted ones were devastated by insect or insects unknown.
Lettuce: Yes. I never had any luck at all in the past, but this year, the lettuce seemed to thrive with no intervention on my part. Zero calories, but nice in salads. I’ll go for both a spring and a fall crop again.
Peppers. Well, I guess so. I mean, they are edible, they produce a nice steady crop, and (this year, at least) they seem to grow with no intervention on my part. They make a nice lacto-fermented pickle when there are more than can be eaten at once. Now that I know that I can grow them, rather than pick up the first seed pack I see at the hardware store, I’ll do a little more research on sweet pepper varieties.
Others. I’ll probably try okra again, but only if I can get my hands on some of the high-yield varieties. Four mature Clemson Spineless never gave me enough pods at one time to do anything with. Eggplant, I may try for a late-spring planting. A planting for fall harvest yielded a lot of leaves and little in the way of anything edible. I have a few herbs that may overwinter, and I have garlic started for harvest next year. I may try walking onions next year. Not that I’m particularly fond of them, but every other variety of onion I have tried has failed. I’m still undecided on pumpkins, if only because they need a lot of space and a lot of time to mature. If I plant them again, they are going in early, in the back corners of the yard. And then if they survive, great, and if they don’t, so be it.
That’s it for this garden year. I don’t anticipate posting anything about gardening until next year. If then.