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Posts Tagged ‘winter lettuce’

Cover crops in November

It’s been really cold the last few evenings – down into the mid 20’s. This got me thinking about the fate of the “edible” cover crops that Mark planted this fall. I blogged about them a few weeks ago and said I would report back once we’d had a few hard freezes.

Well now we have and here’s my report!

The lettuce, believe it or not, is still in beautiful shape as you can see in the photo above! I was really surprised when I went over to the garden to check it out. I thought for sure that I would find the lettuce completely melted out because the temperature Sunday night was 25oF and Monday night it went down to 23oF. I found no sign of wilting at all. I guess winter lettuce means “winter” lettuce.

This daikon radish was over 2" in diameter!

This daikon radish was over 2″ in diameter!

The daikon radishes, turnips, and rutabagas are still growing strongly but this isn’t surprising. These are truly hardy cool season crops. It’s the lettuce I was curious about.

The kohlrabi is beginning to swell and some of the radishes are HUGE! Mark has been harvesting lettuce from the plot fairly regularly since early October and also some of the daikon radishes. When you look at the garden, it’s pretty hard to tell where he has harvested the lettuce because he doesn’t pull it up, he just cuts off the leaves about an inch above the ground. When he harvests the radishes though, it tends to leave a bare spot in the plot because the tops of these are pretty big and tend to shade out the lettuce that is growing right around the plant. Some of the radishes he’s been harvesting have been up to 18″ long. No wonder they make such a great cover crop for the vegetable garden; the roots really break up the soil deep down. Maybe Mark should leave them to do their job but I guess it doesn’t hurt to pull a few for dinner every once in a while – there are still plenty left!

Mark covered part of the plot with cover cloth to protect it from the freeze.

Mark covered part of the plot with cover cloth to protect it from the freeze.

Last Sunday, Mark must have been a little concerned about the hardiness of the lettuce because, knowing that the nighttime temperatures were going to plummet, he covered part of the plot with some cover cloth as an experiment. He used crates to keep the cloth from laying directly on the plants. It turns out this wasn’t necessary. I did peek under the cloth after I took these pictures and it seems that the cover is doing more harm than good because the plants are no longer receiving the light they need and have begun to wilt and lose some of their color.

Hoof prints show where deer have been wandering around the plot

Hoof prints show where deer have been wandering around the plot

Something else I noticed as I walked around the garden is that a few other “guests” have also been helping themselves to some of the crops. All around the perimeter of the plot, there were little cloven hoof prints; that’s right – deer have been visiting the garden! Generally, we have very few problems with deer at the nursery – even in the hosta gardens. They don’t even seem to munch on the daylily buds in the display gardens that are located a little farther from the house. I’ve always been surprised about that because we’ve often seen deer in the fields around the farm.

I could tell that the deer had been nosing around in the lettuce at the edges of the plot but they didn’t seem to be walking through it. I didn’t really see a lot of evidence that they had even eaten very much. Perhaps they don’t like the taste of lettuce.

Insect damage on kohlrabi leaves

Insect damage on kohlrabi leaves

Some of the turnip greens and kohlrabi foliage on the other hand have been eaten by caterpillars and grasshoppers. I noticed this back in mid-October and it looks like they continued to chew on the leaves for a while after that. Now that we’ve had some hard freezes, I’m guessing they’re not a problem any longer.

So there you go! It looks like Mark’s edible cover crop experiment is a success – at least for now. I’ll continue to keep an eye on it. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my Thanksgiving rutabagas!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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A cover crop of mixed greens and root crops

Planting a cover crop after harvesting your vegetable garden is a great way to replenish soil nutrients (especially nitrogen), loosen the soil, rebuild soil structure, reduce weeds, and control erosion over the winter months. They also add some often much needed organic matter to the soil.

Clover is commonly planted as a cover crop.

Clover is commonly planted as a cover crop.

Wow! What a lot of benefits!

The practice of planting a cover crop to revitalize your vegetable garden soil is one way to make your garden more sustainable.

Winter cover crops, often referred to as “green manure”, are generally sown in the fall, allowed to grow all winter, and then are cut (if necessary) and tilled into the soil in the spring before the planting season. The nutrients that have been assimilated into the roots and foliage are then returned to the soil to be used by your vegetable plants during the growing season. Good stuff, right?

There are a variety of different types of seed that can be used for cover crops, but probably the most common are some of the rye grasses, clovers, alfalfa, oats, buckwheat, and various brassicas.

Mark's "edible" cover crop

Mark’s “edible” cover crop

This fall Mark has decided to “reap” some additional benefits from his cover crops – at least the ones he planted in his vegetable garden. Instead of planting some of the more traditional cover crops, he decided to try some edible crops (edible to humans, that is) like winter lettuce, spinach, beets, daikon radish, kohlrabi, rutabaga, and turnips as a fall cover crop.

Back in early September, Mark planted a mixture of these seeds in the vegetable garden and they have been growing beautifully over the last month. The area has filled in well and formed a dense cover of deliciousness!

Mark cuts some lettuce leaving the roots and crown of the plants.

Mark cuts some lettuce leaving the roots and crown of the plants.

The lettuce is especially nice right now and, since the vegetable garden is here at the farm, we’ve all been harvesting some nice handfuls to take home. Before he let us loose in the bed, however, Mark was very careful to instruct us on the “proper” way to harvest these greens to maximize their effectiveness as a cover crop. According to Mark, one of the tricks to harvesting the lettuce when it is grown in a wide bed as a cover crop is to gather a handful and cut the leaves above the growing point with a sharp knife or scissors leaving the roots and crown in place.

This accomplishes two things. First, when the roots are left, they hold the soil in place so it is less likely to splash up and get the nearby lettuce leaves dirty – which means less time spent washing the lettuce in the kitchen. Second, since the lettuce crown is also left behind, it will soon develop new leaves and not only will you be able to harvest from the plant again but it sustains the “cover” in the cover crop. Seems ideal!

After cutting, no bare soil shows and the remaining lettuce stays clean.

After cutting, no bare soil shows and the remaining lettuce stays clean.

In a month or so we should be able to harvest some of the other crops like the beets, turnips, and kohlrabi. We’re already harvesting a few daikon radishes and they are delicious. I’m curious about the kohlrabi as I’ve never eaten it before. Mark insists that it is delicious and sweet when it matures in the cooler weather of spring or fall so I’ll have to give it a try. I guess we’ll have to minimize the harvest of the root crops to some extent though in order to maintain the benefits of these deep rooted vegetables as cover crops.

Daikon radish develops a long edible root that grows deep to breakup compacted soil

Daikon radish develops a long narrow edible root that grows deep and works to breakup compacted soil

I am really interested to see how hardy the winter lettuce is and whether it will be able to survive some of the hard freezes we are sure to have in the not too distant future. I’m a little skeptical about that but time will tell. I’ll be sure to report back! It does seem like the ideal type of cover crop especially for a vegetable garden.

In the meantime, at least by Thanksgiving, I’m definitely going to harvest some of those rutabagas. When I was little, I hated them but my grandfather always told me that if I didn’t eat my rutabagas, I would get scurvy for sure! It scared me so much that I always (mostly) sucked it up and cleaned my plate. Ha! Now I like them! Maybe he was right, I haven’t gotten scurvy yet!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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