Gardening Tips for the New Year from Ira Wallace

December 31, 2011

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) has been one of my favorite heirloom seed suppliers for over twenty years, and is the original source of the potato onion seed stock that I continue to grow today. I was pleased to receive some great gardening tips and ideas from Ira Wallace, a worker/owner at SESE, and a board member of the Organic Seed Alliance back in September.

Ira presented four workshops at the Mother Earth News Fair on the topics of; Fall and Winter Gardening, Cultivating Herbs, Heirloom Tomatoes, and Growing Great Garlic. I later had the opportunity to interview her to gather some of her great tips on seeds and gardening. With many celebrating the New Year and others preparing their seed orders, this is a great time to share some of Ira’s gardening tips!

Make Resolutions to Grow Some New Vegetable Varieties

Ira Wallace PhotoLet’s start with a few unusual crops that Ira described during our conversation. Shallots are a gourmet vegetable that’s more popular with gourmet chefs than with the typical backyard gardener. And when it comes to outstanding flavor, Grey Shallots are the ones that the fancy restaurants and discriminating cooks go wild over. You’ll have to get beyond that rough and homely looking exterior, but if you do you’ll discover why grey shallots are the ones that gourmets prefer.

Tomatillo and Ground Cherries are also unusual crops that you rarely find growing in backyard gardens, but they are pretty high up on Ira’s list. She enjoys using tomatillos for making salsa and recommends ground cherries for baking. Roselle, or Red Sorrel is a crop that I discovered on a trip to St Croix and have attempted to grow in my garden ever since. The tall shrub-like plant has grown well but never yielded flowers or fruits in my garden. Ira shared that they are day length sensitive and recommended that I try a variety that SESE carries.

Perennial Leeks is the other vegetable variety that Ira sold me on trying in my garden this coming season. With perennial leeks you can harvest and use both the leaves and bulbs of this rare edible plant. It is very cold hardy and its perennial habit means that it is easy to maintain, divide, and keep the harvest coming year after year. I have some seed on order and will report back on my experiences with it.

Gardening Tips for a More Productive New Year

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange StandIra is an expert at extending the growing season and had a lot of information to offer the fall and winter gardener. Recommended crops for the fall garden include; arugula, spinach, kale, collards, turnips, oriental vegetables, mustard, Brussels Sprouts, broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, kohl rabi, cabbage, and various root crops.

Her best tip regarding the fall garden was the recommendation to stagger your planting dates by sowing seeds a couple weeks apartrather than target a specific planting date for those fall vegetables. This makes so much sense because the weather is always going to vary from one year to the next. By staggering multiple plantings you’re more likely to hit that sweet spot for production in spite of unpredictable changes in the seasons.

Think about August and early September as prime times for starting fall vegetables, depending on your region, and keep in mind that a week or two difference in the planting can translate into a long gap when it comes to maturity and harvest time for your crops.

Other Ideas and Techniques from Ira Wallace

  • Don’t harvest leafy greens while they are frozen, let them thaw on a warmer day and then harvest.
  • Use the garden as an outdoor refrigerator to store produce right on the plants as the temperatures begin to drop in the fall.
  • Run a sprinkler or mister overnight to protect sensitive plants from cold snaps if an early frost is in the weather forecast.
  • Fall grown carrots are the best flavored, beets can be dug until the ground freezes, and salad greens are great for growing in cold frames and under cover.
  • Plant spinach in early winter, for a crop that you won’t eat that season but early the following spring.
  • Try Asiatic garlic varieties for an earlier harvest though not as long keeping. Plant softneck garlic varieties for better results in southern climates.
  • Harvest your garlic during the summer when there are still about four green leaves on the plant.You can start potato onions in the spring as well as fall. Use a range of sizes as small seed cloves produce bigger bulbs while large cloves result in larger clusters.

For more recommendations and a great selection of rare and heirloom seed choices you can request a catalog or visit the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange website.


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  • Excellent blog. Now this is a prime example of what we need more of… excellent gardening tips and advice.

    Thanks… very interesting read, thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Since I am a High Density Bucket Gardener I am able to pack a lot in a little space. I try to grow year round. That means putting up a greenhouse structure and material over it to protect from any hard freezes. Just a thought!

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