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Writing by Leslie Dock

Artwork by Zoe Stevensy

Tips for a consistent harvest

Afew months ago, my brother asked me what farmers do during the winter. My immediate response was, “We rest.” Compared to the absurd amount of activity farmers engage in during the other nine months of the year, this statement is largely accurate. When not resting, a farmer is likely studying, plotting and planning how to improve her craft and produce a more robust, consistent harvest.

A skilled grower understands what their plants need, how and when to give it to them and when to seed, plant and harvest. The journey isn’t always straightforward, so I laid out a series of tips to aid you in the universal quest for plenty, based on your level of skill.  

  • Morning sun and afternoon shade.
  • Hydrangeas require well-drained soil (avoid areas that flood).
  • Soft ground.
  • Fertile, weed-free soil. (Head to our website for tips on how to weed and prepare your soil.)

When it comes time to shop, native species like Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf) and Hydrangea aborescens (Smooth) are best because they easily assimilate into our local ecosystem.

Oakleaf hydrangeas work best in areas with a good amount of sun, so you get a full display of blooms from spring through fall; their leaves change color from green to orange, then red and maroon. Prune them in the summer, after blossoms begin to fade. 

Smooth hydrangeas, also called Wild hydrangeas, grow best in full sun; just be sure to give them adequate water in the afternoon. They will produce large, showy blossoms and can tolerate heat and cold. Prune stems to the ground in late winter since this species blooms on new wood. 

Level 1: Becoming a seedling

Your decision to grow your own food is a great one. I have yet to hear someone gripe about how a few hours spent tending their garden really ruined their day. However, before you begin, take some time to consider how much space, time and energy you really have for this endeavor. Scale your project so it fits your lifestyle. Next, determine a spot where you get at least six hours of sunlight that can be made impervious to deer. If you are already fenced or don’t have deer , lucky you. For the rest: fence first, grow later.

Plants require heat, light, water, air and soil. When considering where to grow, light, water and soil are your main concerns. Vegetables require no less than six hours of full sun per day. Eight or more is better. 

If you’ve got the sun and space to grow in-ground, dig to confirm you have at least 18 inches of depth and adequate drainage. Clear the surface rocks and plants, and top with 2-3 inches of compost. Work the compost into the top three inches of soil with a garden fork. Don’t go crazy. Work only the growing beds, not the walkways, and aim for a consistency that is just workable, rather than finely screened and soft. 

If your plot isn’t near a water spigot, figure out how to run a hose that can stay there all season. The same goes for pots when it comes to light and water. Almost any pot will suffice, as long as it has drainage holes, is clean inside and has a saucer. Pots can dry out quickly, so it’s important to choose a soil made for growing in containers. Potting soil is designed to hold water longer while maintaining air pockets around a plant’s root hairs.

Once you know where you will grow, it’s time to determine what you will grow, and that depends on heat. Some crops thrive in it, and some wilt. Westchester is in Zone 6, and we have four distinct growing seasons: the cool season (spring) begins in March and ends mid-June; the hot season follows and lasts until early to mid-September; another cool season, known as harvest season, runs early to mid-September until late November; and the cold season (winter) goes from December to February. Our focus will be on the first cool season through the harvest season.

There are cool season crops, hot season crops and crops that can grow well in both. Even though we are already in the third month of the spring season, there’s still time to grow a wide variety of cool crops. You can plant these easy-to-grow seeds in early May: spinach, lettuce, kale, carrots, radishes and beets. Plant your seeds weekly throughout the month. This is known as succession planting, and it’s one of the secrets to spreading out the harvest. It’s also a great time to buy starts for onions and leeks and get them into the soil. 

Mid-May is a good time to begin seeding easy, hot season favorites, such as green beans, corn, cucumbers and zucchini. All can be succession planted each week until mid-June, or even later. Experiment and see what works in your garden. Purchase young tomato and pepper plants in late May. Look for determinate (or bush) tomato varieties that grow easily in pots or in-ground—these take up less space but also need adequate air flow, as their proximity to the ground may make them more vulnerable to soil-borne fungal diseases. Plant a few at the beginning of June and every two weeks until mid-July. This way, you will spend less time staking and pruning and more time harvesting and enjoying. 

While it can be hard to take on another round of seeding in the summer, the effort is well worth the trouble. Beets and spinach can be seeded every week from mid-July to mid-August. Carrots, kale, turnips, radishes, peas and lettuce may be seeded weekly throughout August.

Come September, your seeding and planting tasks are done. You will instead be busy harvesting, cleaning, cooking and preserving your well-earned bounty.

Level 2: Starting to sprout

Bolstered by your previous triumphs, it’s time to expand your selections and fine-tune your seeding and planting skills. 

Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are the “meat” on a vegetable menu. They are gorgeous and satisfying, but it requires a little practice and know-how to get them right. While these crops need heat to germinate, they relish cooler temps when it’s time to put on size. 

If you planted young broccoli and cauliflower in mid-March to early April and protected your young plants from hard frosts, you will reap the rewards in June. But you’ll still need to fend off cabbage loopers (insects that feed on leaves) in late May/early June with regular applications of BT (pest control) or with a floating row cover. Your planning and vigilance will be delectably rewarded with that first mouthful of homegrown goodness in June. 

If you missed the first planting, you can also plant a round of broccoli from early to mid-July for a harvest in October. Bug pressure will be higher in mid-summer, so examine plants daily and look into row covers (if you haven’t already done so).

Cabbage is frost-tolerant and can be planted four times a year. Try two plantings to start. Plant cabbage seeds in early July, choosing varieties with different maturation dates so you aren’t inundated all at once. Larger cabbages take about 100 days to mature, so patience and a steady defense against cabbage loopers are a must.

Finding your way

Since you have some experience under your belt, it’s time to take a slightly deeper dive into all things hydrangea. A well-stocked nursery will carry up to seven species of hydrangea. 

The most common species sold in the U.S. is the Hydrangea macrophylla, known as Bigleaf and/or French hydrangea. The species contains Hydrangea macrophylla (Mophead), Hydrangea macrophylla v. normalis (Lacecap) and Hydrangea macrophylla v. serrata (Mountain). 

The variety you’ll see the most is Mophead. Just as the name denotes, the blossoms resemble a mop head: round and dense with sterile small flowers. They grow best in part shade, benefit from afternoon sun protection and thrive in our area. 

This species also includes the highly-coveted blue varieties. I have a friend who confessed to loving blue hydrangeas so much that she once crept onto private property to steal some blossoms. If you purchased a variety expecting blue flowers and have yet to see them, you needn’t resort to thievery. Instead, amend your soil with a soil acidifier, iron sulfate or compost so it’s more acidic. 

Lacecap has a lace-like appearance with closed, fertile center buds, surrounded by a ring of open, sterile blossoms. They provide food for bees and butterflies and are a nice choice for anyone looking to attract pollinators.

Mountain, named for their tolerance to cold, is the least common. They are built to withstand higher elevations and their accompanying colder climates. You might choose a mountain hydrangea for a particularly cold spot on your property with ample afternoon shade.

No discussion of macrophylla would be complete without a mention of Endless Summer hydrangeas, a special hybrid bred to re-bloom after deadheading. This means they typically blossom from spring through summer, 10-12 weeks. They bloom on old and new wood, so even if you forget to prune at summer’s end, you can prune in late winter or early spring and still get blooms. Endless Summer comes in both Mophead and Lacecap varieties, and there are lots of colors to choose from. If they don’t bloom at all for a season, it’s often due to a lack of nutrients or excessive heat, sun or shade. Some speculate that climate change may also be a factor. 

There is a lot of information in this article and even more online. There, you’ll also find a printable chart to help you keep it all straight. As you learn to identify the plants you already have, be sure to tag them so you know when to prune them. Other than that, remember that “the more the merrier” is always a good rule when it comes to hydrangeas. And don’t forget to be on the lookout for blossom thieves once your hydrangea game is strong.

Talk of the block

Since you’ve already got it going on, how about a little challenge? You likely have plenty of Bigleaf and Smooth hydrangeas gracing your gardens, but have you delved into Climbing hydrangeas or pruned your Panicle hydrangeas into tree form?

Hydrangea paniculata (Panicle) is known for its large, cone-shaped flowers and tolerance to cold. They are the only hydrangea that can be pruned into tree form. Easily identified by their relatively narrow leaves that grow three to a whorl, Panicle hydrangeas are very forgiving when it comes to pruning. Since they bloom on new wood, they can be pruned back without fear of missing out on next season’s flowers. 

Blossom color is not determined by soil acidity, but it will remain longer if nighttime temperatures stay at 70 or below. I get this species as I tend to fade in the heat, too.

If you are really feeling creative, check out Hydrangea petiolaris (Climbing), which can climb 30-80 feet. Tiny suckers, called holdfasts, are this plant’s climbing secret. Climbing hydrangea boast massive, fragrant blooms if given enough sun, though they can handle more shade than other hydrangea species. They are bee and butterfly magnets. 

Level 3: In full bloom

I see you rockin’ the natural pest control, succession planting, drip irrigating and consistently mulching. You are on a roll and have been hauling in more produce than you can eat. Great job. In order to keep the good times rolling, it’s important to incorporate soil fertility management and disease control into your gardening routine. 

Despite last season’s record-setting harvests, you could face a downturn in productivity due to soil exhaustion. Even a yearly compost application doesn’t guarantee robust growth and health. Plan on opening and closing your garden with a top dressing of compost. Think of your soil as a battery that needs recharging twice a year. Fresh compost added in March or April will provide a jolt of fertility and beneficial bacteria, while a second application in mid-November will give your soil something to chew on and fully digest during the winter months.

Also, you should get in the habit of crop rotation. For example, tomatoes and corn place a heavy demand on soil reserves, while peas and beans add nitrogen. Plan out a three-year rotation schedule that moves heavy feeders to a new spot for two seasons before they return to where they started. When a demanding crop moves out, plant peas or beans in their place. 

Crop rotation will also reduce soil diseases. Cucumbers planted in the same spot year after year are more susceptible to fungal diseases because spores proliferate every year. 

Also, consider cover cropping sections of your garden as part of your rotation. Cover crops, which may be planted from spring through fall, are plants that cover soil, add nutrients and organic matter, attract beneficial insects, prevent erosion, aerate soil and control pests and diseases. A mix of red clover, winter wheat, hairy vetch, annual ryegrass and field peas planted in late summer will establish themselves prior to the first frost. These plants feed pollinators, fix nitrogen and add copious organic matter to the soil’s robust root system. All will die off in the winter, except for the wheat, which will sprout again come fall. You can let the wheat grow until harvest or cut it prior to full development and plant a spring crop amongst the remains of the cover crops. 

Additional benefits of cover crops: Since they are planted densely, they shade out weeds. Some even function allopathically, meaning their roots secrete substances that prevent some weeds, pests and diseases from flourishing in the soil around them.

The act of gardening is in itself worthwhile, so consider any mishaps or experiments as necessary steps towards your pursuit of bountiful harvests. And remember, when in doubt, think like a plant.

This article was published in the May/June 2024 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Leslie Dock

Leslie Dock is an accomplished freelance farmer, gardener, permaculture practitioner and educator based in Katonah. Originally from Wisconsin, she made her way to NYC to pursue a career in acting in 2001. After 15 years in the city and numerous vocations, she moved to Katonah with her family and discovered a passion for agriculture and gardening.

“I feel so lucky to live in Katonah,” Leslie says. “We have access to a small-town community and communion with nature and one of the greatest cities in the world. The only thing missing is a killer taco joint in town.”