Water, water everywhere … planning your 2019 garden
Deborah Bigelow Allegany County Master Gardener
No one in our area has been spared the effects of wet weather this past four months. Home gardeners in particular might be wondering what, if anything, they may be able to plant come spring, if the pattern continues. When next fall arrives, what will supply our wants in the midst of another solid month or two of rain? While you are enjoying the yearly arrival of the colorful seed catalogues, and dreaming of the varieties you may like to grow, think spring and fall: these plants actually thrive in a wet environment.
Lettuce of all types needs only a fraction of the sunshine that the “tropicals” (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) require in order to produce an edible crop, so will really deliver in a cloudy, rainy spring and fall. Read catalogues carefully to identify the varieties that will also resist bolting, if we have another hot spell after the spring rains. Plan to put started transplants of different varieties in the ground, or in large containers, spread over several weeks to assure a steady crop. Most lettuces may be direct seeded in late July through late August for fall eating - and if we get another (almost) full month of rain in September in 2019, your lettuce will be happy, even if you are not. Be sure to space the plants correctly, or thin properly, in order to discourage rot, and protect from nibbling bunnies with chicken wire, rabbit-guard fence or row covers.
More sturdy greens like kale, collards, Swiss chard, arugula, mizuna, mustards, and bok choi may be planted not only in spring, but also in early August through mid-September and will drink up lots of rain. They all do better with some sun, but don’t require a lot of it in order to give a decent harvest.
The root of the matter
Why do articles about gardening with children always include radishes in the recommended vegetables to grow? Because they deliver an almost instant (in the plant world) result.If you were impressed by radishes you grew under normal conditions, wait until you experiment with them in a rainy spring - with just a minimal shot of sun some of these varieties are asking to be pulled for your next salad after only 16 to 20 days. Some varieties like French Breakfast also can resist getting pithy if the weather suddenly gets very hot.
Beets and turnips can be grown in spring, but are easily grown in the fall- direct seed in late July through late August, or even September. A small salad turnip will size up, even when crowded, in only 3 weeks or less, with lots of moisture.If you are negligent or hesitant about thinning, and plants are crowded, it will matter much less for the finished size of the root if there is lots of rain. Larger roots like rutabagas should be planted by mid-July in our area and will ask for some sun but can mature by early October into an impressive size even if it rains most of the time. Protect with row cover until a couple of light frosts have improved flavor.
A friend whose judgement is sound once counseled, “Water your celery even if it has rained.”Turned out to be good advice:celery wants lots and lots of moisture and will give you big juicy stalks without pithiness if your transplants have gotten a good start.Cloudy, rainy fall days are ideal - you may pull the entire plant for a month or so of storage if you pack in damp sand, but you’ll lose some color in the stalks. Beware of slugs, however - they like to chew on the stalks (see Master Gardener Steve Jakobi’s article on slug control, http://upstategardenersjournal.com/slugs-the-bane...
Oats, buckwheat, clover, field (soup) peas
Not for eating, unless you want to make that effort. No, these crops will protect your soil from eroding in heavy rain and all can germinate well in wet soil as long as it’s warm enough. Oats are most readily germinated in cool soil (45 degrees), followed by red or crimson clover. Buckwheat does need a soil temperature of at least 50 degrees, and 55 is better.With heavy spring rain the soil is usually cooler. Planting beds may be warmed with a temporary covering of black or clear plastic, left on until there’s a potential planting window. The cover will keep some excess rain off the bed as well as slow down erosion. Sprouted weeds should be removed before scattering the seed. Follow the catalog recommendations for planting density - for example, one retailer calls for planting oats at 4 lb. per 1000 square feet. So a 40’ by 10’ (or 400 sq. foot) bed will require 400/1000 X 4 lb. or 1.6 lb. There are appr. 3 ½ cups of seed in a pound, so for this bed you will need 3 ½ X 1.6 or between 5 ½ and 5 ⅔ cups of seed to meet this rate. A thinner planting will not protect the soil as well as a thicker stand will. Clovers and peas will contribute nitrogen for a possible fall crop of greens. Oats and buckwheat should be cut or mowed before seed sets, unless you don’t mind the reseeding. For a full season of erosion protection, and further contribution to soil texture and organic matter, sow a second crop in mid-summer and let it winterkill, i.e., die when hard frost comes. Both will lay over the soil to protect it. Cover crop seeds should also be sown into containers before fall rains come to conserve the possibly-expensive bagged soil mix you may have used to fill them.
Crops that like lots of water
|Plant name||When to plant||Sun requirements|
|Lettuce||Spring through fall||Minimal|
|Kale, Chard, Mustards||Spring through fall||Moderate|
|Collards||Spring through fall||Moderate|
|Beets, Turnips||Mid-summer, fall||Moderate|
|Radishes||Spring through fall||Moderate|
|Peas (cover crop or edible)||Spring and late summer for
Minimal sun = 2-4 hrs.
Moderate sun = 4 - 5 hrs
High sun = 6 or more hours
A caution:soil should not be disturbed when it is very wet - you’ll only increase erosion.Whatever you do, don’t till or dig vigorously when soil is very wet (sticks together when squeezed in your palm, instead of crumbling apart loosely).It’s better to delay planting, as most of us had to do this past spring, than risk destroying your soil structure.
With the effects that derive from an extremely wet season comes numerous issues: runoff, erosion, bacteria, mold and fungus. Using cover crops is a great option to help manage soil issues, broad leaves help intercept rain while strong root system help maintain surface soil. The cover crop’s roots improve soil aggregate stability and stable aggregates protect organic matter, improving soil structure, water holding capacity and drought resistance. This is all possible from the increase of soil organic carbon, the soil aggregates become more stable and support more pore spaces that can store plant available water. Well-structured soil can hold more water, crops are less prone to drought and water can be drawn from the subsoil by deeper penetrating roots.
Fall seasons allow for high active growth for cover crops and non-tilled fields will get the maximum benefit from cuttings that are left to decompose. You’ll be promoting great nitrogen storage over the winter and support to growth of beneficial soil microbes and suppressive compounds against pests and diseases. To get the highest amount of biomass it’s best to knock down/cut cover crops. When one half of your crop is flowering, by using one of the three methods: undercutting (cutting underneath the soil), mowing or rolling, you can positively affect future productivity and the sustainability of your farming operation.
Please enjoy the pretty pictures in those catalogues! Your Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers in Allegany County are ready to answer your gardening questions - see our webpage at:
Last updated July 29, 2019