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Now what do we do?

By GENE FOX

A good friend of mine reminded me that I wrote about spring being early last week. He then pointed out that ever since I wrote that article it has been sleeting, snowing, blowing, rainy and cold! What have I done? I mean, I thought I was safe. The Government Agency said that spring was early, and Phil didn’t see his shadow. We should be good, right? Not in eastern North Carolina! I have heard it said many times about eastern NC that if you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes, and it’ll change!

Well, the truth of the matter is we can’t hang our hat on whether or not a groundhog sees his shadow. We can keep records and try to predict future weather patterns, but that is just what we are doing, predicting. Mother Nature has a way of evening things out for us. According to records, we are still early, and we know the time when seasons change is supposed to be gradual. Although, here in eastern NC, it usually seems like we go from winter to summer like a Porsche goes from 0 to 60 mph, and we don’t really have much winter anymore.

I say all of this to bring me to one of the joys of this season and that is gearing up to grow vegetables again! This time of year is perfect to set out cool season crops. There are a number of highly nutritious crops that can be grown during late-winter into early spring that will not only tolerate, but thrive in cooler temperatures. Cool season crops are cold-hardy down to around 24 to 26 degrees, so they can be grown beginning in mid-February in our neck of the woods. If we have an unusually cool night below this mark, row covers can be used to protect the plants. The other magic number we need to know is 70 degrees. These crops will do well until we get above this mark for extended periods of time.

Cool season crops are comprised of many leafy greens, root crops and a few others. The leafy greens that can be grown right now are mustard greens, collards, kale, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard and arugula. Root crops are beets, potatoes, carrots, radishes, onions, parsnips, rutabaga and turnips. Some of the other crops are broccoli, cauliflower, celery, peas, fennel, dill, parsley and cabbage. This is not an all-encompassing list but a few favorites that stand out.

One of my newer favorites from the list is kale. I have been able to grow dinosaur kale (‘Toscano’) and common curly leaved kale really well. There are a few other varieties that are delicious as well: “Red Russian,” “Dwarf Blue Curled Vates” and “Winterbor.” I haven’t had many problems with my kale this year. With exception of the occasional aphid outbreak, it has remained relatively pest- and disease-free the entire season. And I mean the entire season: it hasn’t gotten cold enough to kill it this year. I still have plenty to harvest right now!

Kale is a wonderful leafy green that is highly nutritious, easy to grow and can be used in a variety of ways. Kale is one of the most nutritious greens you can eat. It boasts a whopping 200% of your daily vitamin C requirement from just one serving a day (kale, raw, 100g provides 130 mg or 200% vitamin C; kale, 1 cup chopped 67g, provides 80.4 mg or 134%). So, all of you folks trying to ramp up your immune system, add this to your germ-fighting repertoire! This leafy green is packed with other vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants.

Kale is best grown in full sunlight but can grow in part shade. As with most plants, it requires moist but well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. This is one crop that will tolerate a higher pH, up to 7.5, but this is not recommended. Always amend soil for pH needs prior to planting vegetables. The best way to know your pH, and other vital soil nutrients, is to get a soil test. Adding a fresh, 2-inch layer of compost and integrating into the soil is a good way to begin building your soils for future growing! Grow kale from either seed or transplants with a spacing of about six inches between plants and two to three feet in between rows. Sow seeds ½ inch deep and a couple of inches apart, then thin plants, once they come up, to six inches in between them. Be sure to provide plenty of timely nitrogen to these plants. Mulching plants with a two- to three-inch layer of organic mulch will aid in reducing disease pressure while helping to keep soil temperatures cool and conserve moisture. Harvest your kale as baby greens in as little as 20 to 30 days. Be sure to take some and leave some! Harvest mature leaves between 50 and 75 days after seeding the plants.

Enjoy kale in many different ways from eating it raw in salads to sautéed to being prepared in a recipe. To me there is nothing better than fresh kale in my salad. I enjoy it sautéed with a little garlic, tomato and olive oil, as well. There are several recipes that can be found for soups to frittatas that use kale, too.

If you are feeling a little glum that winter is still cranking out there, add a little kale to your garden and look forward to things to come!

If you would like more information about growing cool season crops, visit Beaufort County Extension Center or give me a call. Interested in being a Master Gardener? There is going to be an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer training series this September. Sign up for our information list at go.ncsu.edu/bocoemginterest to receive updates. Call the Extension center today at 252-946-0111 to learn more or visit the Blacklands Area Horticulture page on Facebook. Stay tuned for more upcoming classes throughout March and April.

Gene Fox is the area consumer horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.