DIRT NERD: SUBJECTIVE SEASONALITIES

illustration Melissa Guion
Published  March 2017

Technically, spring will fall upon us in the middle of this month when the sun finds itself resting atop our equator, straddling day and night to draw a firm line between the cold, lifeless winter and the flowering and fertile season of rebirth. Technically.

Actually, we have had spring-adjacent weather in New Orleans since September, and while temperature is not the only control that deserves consideration when deciding what to grow and when, it’s definitely the main control.

Blame it on the irreparable damage humanity has brought upon our planet, or the fact that we live in the Gulf South (or blame it on both). Regardless, the fact remains that it barely gets cold here anymore. At all. It does get very, very hot though, a little more so every year. We have to adapt accordingly, growing what we can when we can.

I’m going to divulge all of my secret seasonal planting practices for the spring and summer, which are probably unique to me and which many gardeners and farmers will wholeheartedly disagree with. I’m not getting down on myself here; I have full confidence in the esotery I am about to disclose, but farming is chaos magic. We all must draw our own sigils in the gardening game.

I’m going to break it down by species and chronology here. I’m going to lay out what I grow and approximately when I grow it, and also when I don’t grow it, as well as what’s not worth growing at all. Again, this is my book of spells and if your tome reads differently, that doesn’t mean it’s all wrong. There are a lot of planting guides out there, but it’s a question that gets asked all too often all the same.

I’m going to divulge all of my secret seasonal planting practices for the spring and summer, which are probably unique to me and which many gardeners and farmers will wholeheartedly disagree with.

Let’s start with root vegetables. Once spring has begun, I forsake all root vegetables. The latest I will plant them is in February. Make no mistake: carrots, beets, radishes, turnips—all of them will grow with might and fury in the early spring sun, lapping it up and loving it. But as the heat gets hotter, root vegetables store less sugars in their roots and use those sugars to grow more greens to collect more sun to make more energy to produce more sugars to grow more. While this is great news for the plant, it’s terrible news for the plant’s predators (us), because root vegetables taste bitter and/ or astringent and all around inedible when they aren’t storing their sugars in their roots. In summary, root vegetables taste really bad after March.

It is said tomatoes have three growing seasons in New Orleans: one in spring, one in summer, one in autumn. I think we have more like one and a half. Tomatoes need to be planted near the early end of spring, i.e. March, if you want to get a decent crop. It’s OK to go later, but you’ll get less tomatoes and more leafy growth going forward, and a lot more pests. As for summer planting, I think it’s dangerous. Planting tomatoes in June is crazy. It’s too hot and there are so many beetles out there that love sucking on that fine tomato juice. Planting tomatoes in September, however, is pretty fantastic. Same with October. Tomatoes will grow through December to great effect if you start them late in the game. Nobody does it, but everybody should. Another note on tomatoes: growing the big guys is hard here. It’s just a fact. If you’re going at tomatoes for the first time, I would try a cherry or pear or grape or some other variety of tomato named after a small fruit.

It is also said that collards and mustard greens grow great in the summer here. I say they grow kind of OK but hate their lives, taste worse, and get eaten by bugs before you can eat them, more often than not. Growing greens in the summer sucks. If you already have any mustards, kale, or collards in the ground, they’ll keep on until May or so, but starting them off now is cruel. Arugula, on the other hand, is pretty easy to grow most of the year. It’ll get really spicy, but that’s OK. Swiss Chard does well until July or so, but the bugs will be an issue. Other alternative leafy things that will do OK or even well in the heat include: Chicory (frisee, endive, and radicchio are all chicories, and all quite heat tolerant), Malabar spinach, tetragonia, molokhia, water spinach, and a few other increasingly unfamiliar things that I will not mention so that I may have strong fodder for future columns.

I consider lettuces a thing apart from the very broad and decidedly unscientific term “greens.” Lettuces are great in the spring but not so much the summer. It’s OK to plant lettuce in March and April, but you’re really pushing it if you plant in May. Lettuces will be miserable in our proper summers. Generally speaking, I like to start lettuces in mid-winter and continue planting them through March, but again, you aren’tillustration Melissa Guion a totally crazy person if you want to start some lettuce in April.

Peppers and eggplants can be put in the ground as early as March, and as late as June. Both are fairly slow growers, but are also very forgiving and heat tolerant. Don’t expect much fruit from the peppers until it cools off a little bit some six months from now. You’ll get a little something, but almost certainly less than you hoped for. However, you will get more eggplants than you hoped for and will be very happy to be rid of them when the cold finally knocks them back. Eggplants are extremely prolific throughout the summer months around these parts. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even matter what kind of eggplant you grow. They don’t quit.

Cucurbits—which include all your melons, squashes, zucchinis, cucumbers, gourds, gherkins, mirlitons, and more— can be started pretty much anytime during the summer, starting in April. I wouldn’t recommend starting them in August, but you can, and it will work. Some may attest that planting your cucurbits earlier will decrease their chances of being afflicted with powdery mildew or vine borers, but I think the presence of these maladies is inevitable. Call it a negative worldview, but I don’t think the glass isn’t half empty, it’s just full of pathology and woe (most cucurbits will do fine even if they are riddled with disease and pestilence, though).

As for beans, I find it largely an exercise in futility to try to grow summer-friendly beans in a quantity that makes up for the effort involved, but for one glaring exception: Yardlong beans. Known by many names, including but-not-limited-to Chinese long bean, snake bean, and asparagus bean, this legume thrives in the summertime from now until November. They taste like green beans but are bigger and cuter, and purple if you’d like them that way. Lima beans aren’t impossible to grow, so if you really want to stick to the familiar these ought to be your huckleberry. Southern peas, cowpeas, field peas, and black-eyed peas, which as far as I can tell are all the exact same thing, grow pretty great in the simmering depths of July and August, but the amount of space you’ll have to dedicate to growing these guys is not even kind of worth the yield, in my opinion. When it cools down a bit, snow peas, green peas and green beans are easy enough to grow and provide yields worthy of any dinner plate.

Herbs are a vague and exceptionally unscientific class of foodstuff consisting of plants from myriad genera (that’s plural for genus), with desires as far-flung between them as the genetics that separate them. As such, they deserve notes on the subject of summer growing at least twice the length of this column. So I will leave but a petty few monolithic words on choice cooking herbs. Basil will grow throughout the summer, but not in the cold. Parsley, cilantro, and lavender cannot stand real heat—do not grow them now. Thyme can take the heat, but won’t last long if it hasn’t established itself before the real heat comes. Plant it in March or wait until September. Most other standard kitchen herbs will survive the summer but should be planted by June at the absolute latest.

Okra grows all summer and you can plant it whenever you’d like. This is probably why it is so beloved around these parts. If you like okra, grow okra all summer. If you don’t like okra, don’t grow it, because it’s pointless to grow food if you’re not going to eat it.

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