Ratooning to Create a Second Harvest

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Ratooning your crops midseason is one way to encourage a second round of growth—and a second round of harvest—from your garden veggies. Yes, I spelled “ratooning” correctly. When I first saw this new-to-me word, I thought it was “racooning,” which I do hope isn’t an actual thing. So, if ratooning is not racooning, what exactly is it?

A ratoon is a new shoot that forms at the base of or on the main stem of a crop plant after that original plant has been cut or cropped. This term is used mostly in major crop plants such as sugarcane, for instance, or pineapples. But the definition of the term—to crop a plant to encourage new growth—can certainly apply to your own home garden vegetables.

In Your Cool-Season Garden

It turns out I’ve been ratooning for years and I haven’t known it. How? When I harvest my broccoli head—that large, umbrella-shaped head in the center of the broccoli plant—I keep the remaining plant in the soil and wait for side shoots to develop into smaller heads. I even wrote about it in a PREVIOUS POST! This is definitely ratooning, or cropping out the first harvest and allowing a side shoot at the base or alongside the main stem to develop. Ratooning works with other cole crops, too, like cabbage and cauliflower. When chopping out the heads of cabbage and cauliflower, the ratooning process will work if you cut above the lower leaves and leave a portion of the stem.

In Longer Growing Seasons

Regions that have a long growing season, such as the American South and Heartland, crops such as peppers, okra and eggplant can be ratooned after the spring flush of fruiting. Typically the plants are cut to about 6 or 8 inches tall with a few lower branches left intact with leaves. This act of severely chopping the plant forces ancillary buds—buds found between the major stem and the side branches—to begin growth. It’ll take several weeks (as in broccoli) or even a few months for your second harvest to be ready to go.

What Ratooning Isn’t

Ratooning isn’t the cut-and-come-again salad mix or the chard that keeps growing as you peel off stems and leaves. That growth would naturally happen anyway, and for those two items, at least, the growth emerges from the center of the plant rather than the side.

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